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U.S. officials nonviolently intervene in South Korea to protect leading dissident Kim Dae Jung, 1985
South Korea experienced political turmoil in the decades following the Korean War under the rule of several autocratic leaders who severely limited political freedom in society. As S. Korea was a crucial ally against the expansion of communism, the U.S. government was wary of being openly critical of the corrupt S. Korean government. However, the U.S. no longer could ignore the violation of human rights in South Korea when Kim Dae Jung, a leading pro-democracy dissident, sought U.S. assistance in his return from exile to Korea in 1985.
Kim rose to prominence as a political figure as a National Assembly member after the Korean War. His active opposition to the corrupt dictators ruling Korea made him susceptible to violent harassment by the Korean government including imprisonment, an assassination attempt, and abduction in the 1970s.
Kim’s fight for democracy and human rights in S. Korea appealed to the U.S. government and gained support. The Reagan Administration was involved in converting Kim’s death sentence to a 20-year imprisonment in 1980. Advocacy from the U.S. Congress and Embassy was crucial in getting General Chun Doo Hwan to grant Kim a suspension on his jail term (after Kim had served over two and a half years in forced isolation) ostensibly for receiving medical treatment in the U.S. in December of 1982.
While in the U.S., Kim actively sought support and sympathy for the democracy struggles in Korea from the American politicians and journalists. Kim taught at Harvard University as a Fellow, established the Korea Institute for Human Rights, and closely corresponded with various journalists and U.S. officials like George Lister, a policy advisor for the Bureau of human rights and Humanitarian affairs, and Elliot Abrams, the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Kim delivered a speech at the State Department Open Forum in 1985, challenging the United States to be more actively engaged in supporting the democracy efforts in Korea.
Kim finished his medical treatment and fellowship in June of 1984 and started to carefully plan his return to his homeland, aware of the fate of Benigno Aquino, the Philippine opposition leader, who was assassinated at the Manila airport when he returned from exile in 1983. Kim was especially concerned about the growing radicalism of the dissenters and wanted to return to inspire the discouraged Korean population. Despite the danger and risk of re-imprisonment or even death that Kim faced, he made a firm decision to return to his homeland in order to participate directly in his people’s struggle for democracy.
Kim asked the U.S. government for “concern and cooperation” to secure return without “complications” and collaborated with Lister and Abrams on the details of his return. In September of 1984, Kim wrote a letter to General Chun telling of his intentions to return which was responded by a threat to re-arrest Kim upon his return. Therefore, 22 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter requesting the Korean government to assure Kim’s safety on October 16, 1984. The tone of the letter was diplomatic but also cautioning of the consequences the harassment of Kim would have on the bilateral relations. The S. Korean government announced that it would not re-arrest Kim, two days after the invitation for General Chun for talks with President Reagan in the U.S.
Seeking to publicize his return, Kim wrote “Why an Exile Wants to Go
Home” in the Los Angeles times on October 11 and on November 4,
reiterated his story to Korean journalists in Washington, DC. On December 2, 3000 people attended Kim’s farewell ceremony in Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Despite urgings by some U.S. officials to postpone Kim’s visit until after the Korean parliamentary elections, Kim embarked on his journey home on February 6, 1984. On his flight to Korea, Kim was accompanied by about two dozen U.S. citizens including US Congressmen Edward Feighan, Thomas Foglietta, and Edward Markey, former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Pat Derian, former Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, and singer Mary Travis.
Hundreds of Korean supporters who awaited Kim were blocked from welcoming Kim at the airport by police officers and military. It is unclear how much violence ensued between these groups at the Kimpo airport on February 8, 1984, because of the conflicting accounts from the event.
It was reported that Kim, along with the members of the entourage, were physically shoved and beaten by Korean Central Intelligence Agency officers. The entourage was later accused of deliberately provoking violence when they were rumored to have used a locked-arms technique leaving the plane. Kim was forcibly separated from most of his entourage (three members of the American entourage were allowed to accompany him in separate car) and taken to a house where he was virtually put under house arrest.
The Korean government expressed “regret” over the tactics used at the airport a few days following the incident when an invitation for President Chun to visit America was called into question. While Kim’s accompanying party voiced distress at their treatment by the
hands of the KCIA agents at the airport and Kim acknowledge that he had
been handled roughly, Kim had arrived at his home without experiencing
further violence. Ed Djerejian, a US deputy state spokesman, said that
the United States Embassy was opposed to the behavior of the KCIA agents
but that President Chun’s visit to the United States would continue as
planned. Nonetheless, the South Korean government promised an investigation
into the incident and said that they would assure the safety of the
visiting United States Representatives and their party.
The U.S. continued to press the Korean government to release Kim from house arrest. Kim was not rearrested on the old charges after his return and later had all his charges cleared on Jun. 25, 1987.
In the meantime the grassroots Korean movement for democracy grew rapidly. (See “South Koreans win mass campaign for democracy, 1986-87”). Kim became active in Korean politics and, in 1997, became the first opposition party leader to be elected president in South Korea.