Former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung once told me one of the most poignant stories I have ever heard about the role America plays overseas, how it is a force for good around the world. After hearing the news of his death in Seoul yesterday, it made me wonder how the current administration would act under similar circumstances.
Kim was president from 1997 to 2003 and instituted a policy of rapprochement with communist North Korea which did not produce the promised results. However, he was a stalwart (and brave) opposition leader much longer than President, and it was as such that I came to know him in Seoul in the 1980s, when I was a wire service reporter there.
He invited me to lunch when I departed my post and it was at that feast that I asked him to recount his tale. Evidently weary of telling the same anecdote over and over again, he said with some sarcasm, “Ah, you want to hear the story!” but he humored me.
The story was this: in 1973, when Kim was already an outspoken opposition leader, the dictator Park Chun-Hee sent special agents to kidnap him from the hotel in Tokyo where Kim was staying. The South Korean agents bound him up, put Kim in a sack and smuggled him into a South Korean ship waiting offshore.
“There,” Kim told me, “they put a chain with a weight around my feet and I knew it was time to say my prayers. I closed my eyes very tightly and prayed to God to please spare my life.
“Then, suddenly, I heard this terrifying noise, and felt this celestial wind against my face. I opened my eyes and saw this blinding light, coming from this being hovering over the ship screaming, ‘Release Kim Dae-Jung! Release Kim Dae-Jung.’ I thought, of course, that God had sent an angel.”
He had, though it was in the form of a U.S. military helicopter. The U.S. government, under the staunchly anti-communist President Nixon then, sent help to a man accused of being a communist sympathizer by a friendly government. Park’s agents desisted from their plan, and Kim was elected president 24 years later. In 1980, another staunch anti-communist, Ronald Reagan, acting through his transition team, also saved Kim’s life.
In the heat of what is now a 24/7 political debate, many American politicians – particularly on the left – forget how often others see the U.S. as an angel, even our military helicopters. President Obama should hear these stories and remember why America is seen as a force for good in the world. When the United States rescues humanity from the grips of totalitarianism, the world may debate the outcome for a month, but the human beings never forget.