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Kim Dae Jung Speaks Out

What does South Korea’s Nobel Prize winner have to say about democracy?

December 18, 2000

What does South Korea's Nobel Prize winner have to say about democracy?

Upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung reflected on the global roots of democracy and Asian civil society. The excerpts below are direct quotes from his speech.

Can Western democracy work in Asia?

In the decades of my struggle for democracy, I was constantly faced with the refutation that western-style democracy was not suitable for Asia, that Asia lacked the roots. This is far from true.

In China and Korea, feudalism was brought down and replaced with counties and prefectures before the birth of Christ. And civil service exams to recruit government officials are a thousand years-old. The exercise of power by the king and high officials were monitored by robust systems of auditing.

What about the concept of human rights?

In Asia, long before the west, the respect for human dignity was written into systems of thought, and intellectual traditions upholding the concept of “demos” took root.

“The people are heaven. The will of the people is the will of heaven. Revere the people, as you would heaven.” This was the central tenet in the political thoughts of China and Korea as early as three thousand years ago. Five centuries later in India, Buddhism rose to preach the supreme importance of one’s dignity and rights as a human being.

But isn’t there a difference in philosophies?

There were ruling ideologies and institutions that placed the people first. Mencius, disciple of Confucius, said: “The king is son of heaven. Heaven sent him to serve the people with just rule. If he fails and oppresses the people, the people have the right, on behalf of heaven, to dispose of him.” And this, 2,000 years before John Locke expounded the theory of the social contract and civic sovereignty.

Then how come authoritarian regimes emerged — and survive — in Asia?

Asia was rich in the intellectual and institutional traditions that would provide fertile grounds for democracy. What Asia did not have was the organizations of representative democracy. The genius of the west was to create the organizations, a remarkable accomplishment that has greatly advanced the history of humankind.

Can this be remedied?

Brought into Asian countries with deep roots in the respect for demos, western democratic institutions have adapted and functioned admirably, as can be seen in the cases of Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

In East Timor, the people went to the polling stations to vote for their independence, despite the threat to their lives from the savage militias. In Myanmar, Madam Aung San Suu Kyi is still leading the struggle for democracy. She retains wide support of the people. I have every confidence that there, too, democracy will prevail and a representative government will be restored.

How do democracy and free markets interact?

I believe that democracy is the absolute value that makes for human dignity, as well as the only road to sustained economic development and social justice.

Without democracy the market economy cannot blossom, and without market economics, economic competitiveness and growth cannot be achieved. A national economy lacking a democratic foundation is a castle built on sand.

Therefore, as President of the Republic of Korea, I have made the parallel development of democracy and market economics, supplemented with a system of productive welfare, the basic mission of my government.