Fickle history and a tarnished peace prize

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 August, 2003, 12:00am

The Nobel Peace Prize is among the elite of international awards, as high in profile as an Oscar or a Wimbledon singles trophy. For that reason, when scandal strikes - as it has with 2000 winner, former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung - questions are asked, and loudly.

The allegation is that South Korean taxpayers unwittingly bought Mr Kim's award. The claim was seemingly proven on Monday when the chairman of the North Korean investment arm of Hyundai committed suicide. In notes written before he jumped from the window of his 12th-floor office in central Seoul, Chung Mong-hun apologised for his role in transferring hundreds of millions of dollars illegally from a state bank to North Korea.

When the scandal broke in February, the company, Hyundai Asan, claimed the US$500 million in payments were for its monopoly rights to tourism and other investments. Opposition politicians claimed at least US$100 million was a bribe to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il so he would meet then-president Kim Dae-jung, who was pushing for a breakthrough in his cherished 'sunshine policy' of engagement with the North. The transfers were made, apparently with Hyundai Asan as the go-between, weeks before the historic talks in June 2000. Within six months, Kim Dae-jung was the Norwegian Nobel Committee's peace laureate for the year.

Unlike other prizes given annually by the committee, the peace prize is often political in nature and as a result, controversial. Human rights, conflict resolution and disarmament are, after all, matters of interpretation. But another difference is its frequent tying to news events. Among such winners were, in 1973, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho, who negotiated the Vietnam war peace accord earlier that year; Polish union leader and democracy fighter Lech Walesa in 1983; the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama, in 1989; and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, the year after her National League for Democracy party was stopped from taking power by the ruling junta after winning elections.

American academic Ghada Talhami, a professor of political science at Lake Forest College in Illinois, said that the 1994 peace prize, given to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli politicians Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin for broking Middle East peace, meant little. The prize had been political, coming a year after the signing of the Oslo accords, and history had shown their efforts to have failed.

'I am one of those Palestinians who felt from the start that the road to Oslo was not the road to take,' Dr Talhami said. 'It was a moment of extreme weakness, where the alignment of forces was so uneven that Arafat shouldn't have even ventured in that direction.'

The director of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Stein Tonnesson, said some members of the prize-giving committee believed they could encourage a process by giving the award to a particular cause. The Oslo agreement had been seen as a major advancement, but it had gone sour with time. The same now appeared to be happening with Korea. 'It's sad that scandals are now splitting South Korea at a time when there is a crisis with North Korea,' Dr Tonnesson said. 'At such a time, South Koreans should be working together.'

He said Kim Dae-jung fitted the criteria for the ideal peace-prize winner - an individual with a cause. He had won for his decades-long commitment to human rights in South Korea and peace on the peninsula, not just for the summit in 2000. 'But it's unlikely he would have got it unless the summit had taken place that year,' Dr Tonnesson said. 'I don't suspect Kim Dae-jung of paying all this to get a peace prize. He had a programme for the sunshine policy and he truly believed in it.'

Korean culture is partly to blame for the controversy. Gift-giving is a traditional aspect of doing business, and the bigger the deal, the more expensive the gift. Peace on the Korean peninsula is the biggest deal of all and Kim Jong-il would have expected an appropriate reward. How the gift was funded is being investigated.

Summit or not, Kim Dae-jung was a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. South Koreans are generally proud of his achievements.

The prize-giving committee made its own foray into Korean peace-broking, as it has previously on numerous other issues. History is fickle, though, and its members would do better to put a little more breathing space between the accolades they give and events in the news.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's Foreign Editor