Kim Dae Jung (1924-2009) was one of the great survivors of Korean politics. As an member of the opposition during the Rhee and Park dictatorships, he spent time in and out of prison. At one point, he was even sentenced to death, though he was later granted exile in the United States. He ran against the dictator Park Chung-hee and came close to defeating him.
In 1998, he was elected President of the Republic. He couldn’t have become president at a worse time, as Korea was reeling from the effects of the Asian financial crisis, a crisis which lead the meltdown of the Thai economy and the near meltdown of the South Korean economy. During his presidency, Korea paid off its loans to the IMF in record time. South Korea’s soccer team went all the way to the finals in the 2002 World Cup. Finally, the first summit meeting between a South Korean president and the then leader of the North, the late Kim Jong-il.
To be honest, I love this sort of thing. I’ve been the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. I’m sorry I never got to the Nixon Library when the Nixon family still controlled it. Now that it is under the control of the National Archives, they are taking a more balanced view towards Watergate. The Kim Dae Jung Library was the first presidential library in Asia. I’m not sure whether or not Lee Myung-bak, the current president, is thinking of starting one. I hope he would, despite the great rancour his presidency has caused.
The Kim Dae-jung library has good signage in both English and Korean. Many Korean museums have not much description in English, but much description in Korean. To get to the Kim Dae Jung Museum, take the line 2 subway to Hongik University (홍대입구). The closest exit to the museum is exit 6, though it is currently under construction. Exits 5 and 7 aren’t very far away, either. You can get to these exits by going through the airport railway transfer.
There is an orientation film which I think is a bit over the top as to the achievements of the “Sunshine Policy”. I must say that I am skeptical of the success of the “Sunshine Policy”. While relations between South and North did warm considerably, a lot of cash ended up in North Korea without much accountability for how it was spent. That being said, this museum does have quite a few items from one of South Korea’s major political figures. Also, it may be one of the only places in South Korea where one might see a sample of the late Dear Leader’s signature! There are also artifacts from his imprisonment. Among the things he had in prison with him were his rosary (he was a very devout Catholic), his hymn book, a Catholic prayer book, and some other books.
One pet project of Kim Dae Jung’s, an one which I sympathize with greatly, was his call for the revival of hanja, or Chinese characters. He wanted to put it back into the curriculum, though his ministers did not go along with him. Kim, like most educated Koreans of his generation, was educated in the Chinese and Korean classics. In his diaries and letters to his wife from prison, you will see quite a bit of Chinese characters. Unfortunately, the younger generations can’t read these easily, as hanja is no longer required in many schools. The late president kept regular diaries, something which later historians will no doubt look on him kindly for. When he died in 2009, the publishers wanted to publish them right away, only to find that they required translation, as there were many Chinese characters used in them. The late president Kim was a highly accomplished calligrapher. The museum has quite a few examples of his calligraphy, including a piece of calligraphy he gave to the irritatingly leftist historian Bruce Cumings. (Cumings lets his politics overly shadow his history. This is why I call him irritatingly leftist.)
The museum is right next door to Kim Dae Jung’s home in Seoul. I figured it must be the president’s retirement home, as there were police outside guarding it. Then, I noticed a plaque with the names of 金大中 (Kim Dae Jung) and 李姬鎬 (Lee Hee-ho, namely his widow).
To visit the museum’s website, click on the URL below.