Well Worth the Effort

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Kim Dae Jung's biography reads like a screenplay that even Hollywood might find far-fetched, with endless plot twists, falls and redemptions and brushes with death. By winning the Nobel Peace Prize last week, the South Korean President gives the fairy tale of a life yet another dramatic turn. I don't consider myself brave at all, Kim has said. I am proud of myself for putting up this fight during this difficult period in Korean history.Kim's critics (some of whom flew to Oslo to oppose his Nobel nomination) contend that he has been driven by a lust for power and a yearning for public acclaim. All politicians are filled with ambition, of course, but what turns ordinary pols into statesmen is how they funnel that ambition. In Kim's case, it is hard to argue that his sacrifices and accomplishments were merely for personal gain. Four months after his remarkable meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Il, it is easy to forget how unlikely such a turn of events seemed even three years ago, when Kim was elected President. To be sure, the steps he has taken toward dEtente have been mostly symbolic: handshakes, hugs, tearful reunions between a tiny number of families divided by the DMZ. Nonetheless, they are steps toward diffusing a tense conflict on a peninsula that has the world's most heavily armed border. It is unlikely that any of these things would have happened without Kim.That the 74-year-old President ever found himself in the position to reach out to the North is astonishing in itself. The first time he ran for president, in 1971, a truck rammed his car, killing his driver and injuring Kim. Two years later, South Korean agents kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel, tied him to weights and appeared ready to dump him over the side of a boat. At the last minute, his life was spared. Then, in 1980, back in South Korea, he was arrested, accused of plotting an uprising and sentenced to hang. He was saved only after the U.S. intervened. When he finally won the presidency, South Korea was in financial free-fall. Kim had to focus on balance sheets, seemingly putting any grandiose dreams of peace aside. Even as people celebrated his election—Nelson Mandela sent a wristwatch that Kim still keeps on his desk—many worried that he wasn't the right man for the job. He confounded his critics, persuading his countrymen to accept short-term economic pain while the country prepared the way to recovery.There is still an unwritten chapter on Kim's life, concerning his intriguing relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who for all we know is seething that he, too, wasn't acknowledged by the Nobel committee. But the Dear Leader is reportedly an avid cineaste. So, he, of all people, surely recognizes that Kim Dae Jung's film epic of a life now has a suitable ending.