Peace Prize Recognizes a Truly Epic Achievement

The Nobel committee was right, says TIME.com's TONY KARON, because South Korea's Kim Dae Jung may have single-handedly defused the world's most dangerous time bomb.

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Speculative journalists might have tossed around such unlikely names as Bill Clinton and George Mitchell for the Nobel Peace Prize, but looking back on the last year there shouldn't really have been any doubt — Kim Dae Jung's visit to North Korea earlier this year marked an epic achievement in reconciliation. The 74-year-old South Korean president has worked for decades to bridge the divide between the two Koreas, which have been technically at war for a half century. He spent two years in prison and 10 years in exile because of his activities as a campaigner for democracy in South Korea and for reunification with the North, but eventually was elected president, in 1997, on promises of pursuing a "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with Pyongyang. Following his historic visit to the North Korean capital for a summit with its leader, Kim Jong Il — the first ever between leaders of the two Koreas — there has been an unprecedented warming of relations along the world's most dangerous Cold War boundary. Moves to promote social and economic relations across the divide are proceeding apace, and the two countries marched together at last month's Olympic Games in Sydney.

Kim Dae Jung not only persuaded North Korea's notoriously recalcitrant leadership to engage in talks towards normalizing relations; he also managed to convince the United States — which had been far from convinced by his "Sunshine Policy" — that a sea change was possible in relations between the two Koreas. The fact that a North Korean leader made a first-ever visit to the White House this week, and that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright plans to visit Pyongyang later this year, would not have been possible without the South Korean leader's efforts. Of course, the Nobel Committee has, in recent years, taken to giving joint awards to two leaders on opposite sides of an ongoing peace process. In the case of Kim Jong Il, however, the committee could not stretch its imagination far enough to lionize an unpredictable authoritarian with a dismal human-rights record. Besides, the reconciliation is occurring primarily because Kim Dae Jung, with Beijing's help, managed to coax the North Korean leader out of his shell. Still, being the arch-conciliator that he is, don't be surprised if Kim Dae Jung makes some gesture toward sharing the award with his peace partner.