TOKYO - Former U.S. President Richard Nixon, facing the possibility of prison after the Watergate scandal, mused that at least he would be in good company. Many of the great political leaders had once been behind bars. It was a good place, Nixon said philosophically, to think and catch up on one's reading.
Pardoned by President Gerald Ford, Nixon was never incarcerated, but South Korea's former President Kim Dae Jung (1925-2009), who died Tuesday, spent five years in prison, seven under house arrest and another two in exile in the U.S. for his steadfast opposition to his country's military dictatorships.
Having only a commercial college education, Kim used those years as Nixon claimed he would have, by soaking up knowledge from classic political tracts, ranging from Mencius to Aristotle. His Prison Writings - heavily censored monthly letters to his son - are justly admired.
But Kim Dae Jung would not be Asia's Greatest Democrat had he been a martyr or political thinker alone. He was a man of action, who devoted his life to advancing democracy in South Korea. That's been true since he was writing fiery pro-democracy editorials as a young newspaper publisher in the southwestern coastal city of Mokpo.
After several unsuccessful attempts, he won his first seat in the National Assembly in 1961, only to find three days later the parliament building surrounded by tanks in the military coup that brought Park Chung Hee to power. In 1971 he made the first of four bids for president - running against Park himself.
He engendered Park's undying enmity by winning as much as 46 per cent of the vote. In the first presidential campaign he was hit by a car, perhaps deliberately, and suffered an injury that made him walk with a shuffle for the rest of his life.
In 1973 he was abducted by agents of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) in Japan and brought back to South Korea forcefully. His political rights were restored only after Park's assassination in 1979. A year later Kim was accused of treason after students and residents of the southwestern city of Kwangju, his political base, rose in a bloody insurrection.
In those years South Korea was moving slowly away from military dictatorships. Kim's immediate predecessor as president, Kim Young Sam, was the first civilian president chosen in a reasonable fair election. As his term expired, Kim Dae Jung would make his fourth and finally successful bid.
In the 1997 election Kim Dae Jung proved he was no ivory-tower democrat. Not only was he courageous, but he could be shrewd, practical, even ruthless when he had to be. His comeback, which marked the first peaceful transfer of power from a ruling to an opposition party in South Korea's history, was a masterpiece of political manipulation.
He made an alliance of convenience with the conservative Kim Jong Pil, the very man who had masterminded the coup that prevented him from taking his assembly seat more than 30 years before and founder of the KCIA, the agency that had tried to kidnap him.
He leaked allegations that the sons of his main opponent, Lee Hoi Chang, had avoided military service. These revelations, damaging enough to Lee, encouraged the ambitious mayor of Inchon, Rhee In Je, to enter the race, thus splitting the conservative vote and allowing Kim to squeak into power with about 40 percent of the vote.
As president, Kim Dae Jung showed toughness in getting his way with the legislature and Korea's large business conglomerates, but he also has steadfastly held to his vision of reconciliation with North Korea, known as his "sunshine policy." He was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Peace for his summit meeting with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000.
Some of the luster went off of that achievement when it was later revealed that he had arranged with several large business conglomerates to bribe the North with about $500 million in cash to hold the meeting in Pyongyang (which, to his disappointment, was never reciprocated). There was personal sadness too when his two sons were convicted of corruption.
These days the sun does not shine so brightly on the sunshine policy. A cold wind continues to blow from Pyongyang. The election of conservative Lee Myung Bak as president (another peaceful, democratic change of power) reflected growing disillusionment in South Korea. Still, elements of the sunshine policy, such as the Kaesong industrial zone across the Demilitarized Zone, remain in place, and, by a strange coincidence, Pyongyang renewed exchanges across the DMZ the day Kim died.
It should not be said that Kim Dae Jung brought democracy to South Korea by himself. Others prepared the ground, especially Roh Tae Woo, who in 1987 returned the presidency to direct election, and Kim Young Sam, a longtime democracy activist in his own right, who became in 1993 Korea's first elected civilian president in decades.
Other great Asian democrats include the late Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, who helped restore democracy after the long dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. But as a philosopher of democracy, as an activist and working politician and finally as a leader, Kim Dae Jung is in a class by himself.