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A Commentary by Irwin Abrams

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the last of its century of prizes to President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea "for his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and East Asia in general and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular." Once again the Committee used its prize to further an ongoing peace process. Kim Dae Jung had initiated the efforts which led to the summit meeting in June with his counterpart, Kim Jong Il of North Korea. This was the first meeting of these two heads of states still technically at war after five decades.

Not long ago the two Koreas had fought a stormy naval battle over a territorial dispute, and still today more than a million soldiers, including United States troops, are facing one another across the world's most heavily militarized border. But the summit meeting in North Korea's capital of Pyongyang was followed by the spectacle at the Olympic Games of athletes from North and South Korea marching together and by reunions of long divided families.

Nobel prizes for statesmen have been criticized as rewarding individuals for actions taken by dint of their office, but who have shown no enduring commitment to peace. Kim Dae Jung, however, has worked since 1971 for peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas and their eventual unification. When South Korea was ruled by an anticommunist authoritarian government, he suffered beatings, attempted assassinations, imprisonment, a death sentence and exile. In 1973 he was kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel by South Korean agents and would have been thrown into the sea, bound and blindfolded, had not United States operatives saved him.

Yet his first act after becoming president was to pardon one of the generals who had sentenced him to death. Kim Dae Jung once wrote from prison to one of his sons, "Only the truly magnanimous and strong are capable of forgiving and loving." For this spirit of forgiveness, a result of his staunch religious faith as a Roman Catholic, he has been called "the Mandela of Asia."

Critics say the prize is premature and ask whether North Korea is simply acting opportunistically out of desperate need for food and economic aid and will remain a Stalinist state. In light of recent events, two political Nobel prizes to aid peacemaking, the 1994 prize to Arafat, Rabin and Peres and the 1998 prize to Northern Irish political leaders, appear very disappointing. But whatever happens to the peace process on the Korean peninsula, it is Kim Dae Jung's lifetime of effort for peace which earns him a high place among all the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Irwin Abrams, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Antioch University and leading authority on the Nobel Peace Prize, has just published Words of Peace, excerpts from the speeches of the winners of the prize.