Abduction of opposition leader Kim Dae-jung in 1973
By Michael Breen
Before he became the president of South Korea and launched the effort to reconcile with North Korea, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize, Kim Daejung was best known as the country’s most prominent democratic dissident.
While many contributed to the development of democracy and some of them suffered considerably at the hands of authoritarian leaders, no other name became so synonymous with democracy.
That rise to public and international awareness began in 1971, when the dictator Park Chung-hee forced a constitutional change which allowed him to run a third time for the presidency.
The opposition was facing a generational change and Kim Dae-jung, in his mid-40s at the time, emerged as a surprise compromise candidate between its factions.
With enormous funding and all the resources of the state at his disposal, Park had a huge advantage.
Even so, Kim managed to win 45 percent of the vote. His refusal to disappear quietly after this near-victory set him up as a marked man.
In the following year, talks began with North Korea, with the two rival sides signing a historic agreement pledging to end their hostility.
This process was treated internationally as if there had been a breakthrough. In fact, it was nothing of the kind because, as both sides knew well, there had been no significant power shift towards one side.
The “reconciliation” was not even a temporary lull, as the North was secretly building invasion tunnels under the DMZ.
Ironically, the exposure to the North Koreans through the dialogue process caused Park to be increasingly nervous of his own opposition. Kim Il-sung had built up a communist personality cult and ruthlessly suppressed dissent.
The result was, to Park’s way of thinking, enviable. Such unity gave the impression of total strength, while dissent in the South gave an impression of weakness to both North Korea and to Park and his people. This view was not simply dictatorthink.
It also fitted the traditional idea that dissent, like storms and bad harvests, signaled heaven’s displeasure with a leader. The modern idea that open protest in a country reflects a system’s durability was alien, even, we may say, to the protesters.
Park’s response was to suspend the constitution and declare martial law. He introduced a new “Yushin” (revitalizing) constitution and had himself re-elected for a six-year term.
His rule degenerated into repression.
It became illegal to criticize the new constitution.
And that’s what Kim Dae-jung was doing overseas in America and Japan in the summer of 1973 when, according to a memo obtained by the daily Dong-a Ilbo in 1998 the week before he was sworn in as president, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency head Lee Hu-rak ordered his assistant deputy director, Lee Chul-hee, to abduct Kim and bring him back to Korea to be silenced.
The KCIA had sweeping powers and, under various directors, had expanded and intruded into every sector of society. In theory, the agency was supposed to guard against North Korean subversion.
Indeed, this capability grew more sophisticated when the North-South talks began. Despite an unsophisticated, even thuggish, public face, the agency quietly developed detailed data about North Korea.
At North-South meetings, for example, agents took samples of northern cigarette packs, glasses, bottles, tableware and anything else they could lay their hands on and used them to analyze North Korean manufacturing processes.
Its domestic departments, however, were the strong arm of the dictatorship. They investigated government opponents, devised plots to undermine them, controlled the media, spied in colleges and churches, and coordinated policy between government ministries.
The plan to kidnap Kim Dae-jung was completely in keeping with its sense of mission.
The plan unfolded on Aug. 8, 1973. Kim had just finished a lunch with two other opposition figures, Yang Il-dong and Kim Gyong-in, at the Grand Palace Hotel in downtown Tokyo. As he stepped out of his room, several agents jumped on him.
“Save me! These are murderers,” Kim shouted at two Japanese guests in the corridor. Thinking they were witnessing a yakuza fight, they kept quiet as the agents dragged Kim into Yang’s room, which was next to his. There they smothered him with a chloroform-soaked rag and arranged the room to make it appear as if the kidnappers were North Koreans. Kim was then taken by elevator to an underground parking lot and driven, blindfolded and gagged, to a KCIA safe house.
The next night he was transferred by minivan and motorboat to a Korean freighter. There he was bound again, his face covered in tape with air holes around his nose. As the ship moved off into the darkness, his captors roped Kim to a traditional Korean funeral plank. Weights were attached to his wrists. Kim, who had converted to Catholicism after his first wife had died under the guidance of his political mentor, the former Prime Minister Chang Myun, began to pray.
In Seoul, meanwhile, U.S. officials, alerted by Kim’s supporters and by a former KCIA director, Kim Hyong-wook, went into action to save him. In an interview with Japan’s Kyodo News years later, the then-American CIA station chief, Donald Gregg said that, after he reported that the KCIA was behind the abduction, the U.S. ambassador, Philip Habib, ”jumped in his car” and went to the Blue House to demand that President Park release Kim.
Habib told Park that Kim’s murder would be a “terrible setback” for U.S.-Korea relations.
”The result was that the message was sent to the boat where KDJ (Kim Dae-jung) was chained and (waiting) to be thrown over the side (of the boat),” said Gregg, who was U.S. ambassador to Seoul from 1989 to 1993. (The agent Lee Chul-hee later denied any plan to drown Kim, saying his orders were to bring him back alive.)
As Kim prayed, he later said, he had a vision of Christ, an experience that remained with him all his life. Then, he heard the noise of an aircraft. A plane, which Kim thought was American but which Gregg in his interview speculated was Japanese, had buzzed the vessel. He heard crew members shout “airplane” and the sound of heavy objects splashing into the sea. “Are you Mr. Kim Dae-jung?” a voice asked. “I think the worst is over and you are alive.”
He later thought that it was the ship’s cook. The mysterious aircraft had scared Kim’s kidnappers enough to save his life.
On the night of Aug.13, 1973, Kim was thrown out of a car onto a street near Seoul, still blindfolded, battered but alive.