South Koreans elated at President Kim Dae-jung’s Nobel Peace Prize

SEOUL, South Korea, AP

Fireworks lit up Seoul’s sky Friday after President Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and villagers danced and drank in the island town where he was born.

Staff at a giant Seoul bookstore placed his photograph in a frame that had been kept empty for years in case a Korean won the Nobel. Kim’s image joined those of other prize winners on the wall.

Kim, a lifetime crusader for human rights and democracy, fulfilled a national dream: the first Nobel prize for a Korean. Many hoped the prize would accelerate his quest for peace on the divided Korean peninsula.

“It’s an honor that will not come again. I am only thankful,” Kim was quoted as saying by his spokesman, Park Joon-young.

“Today’s honor is due to public support for democracy, human rights, peace, reconciliation and cooperation between South and North Korea during the past 40 years.”

People cheered and clapped around large television screens at bus terminals and railway stations when Kim’s name was announced. All television networks broke from regular programming to report the news live from Oslo, Norway. Early Saturday editions of all newspapers splashed front-page banner headlines with the award.

Hundreds of fireworks exploded over Seoul in a celebration funded by a private company.

“I have never been happier. I think this will have a positive effect on our relations with North Korea,” said Soh Soon-chul, a 44-year-old office worker in Seoul.

“I felt my body electrified with sheer joy when I heard the announcement. I had prayed for him to get the award. I am so happy,” said Lim Ki-soo, 45, a construction worker.

The villagers at Ha Eui Do, a far-flung island off the southwest coast where Kim was born into a fisherman’s family 76 years ago, beat gongs and drums late into the night.

Television footage showed the weather-beaten fishermen raising their arms as they chanted: “Hurrah!”

North Korea’s state-controlled media did not immediately report the news that Kim had won the prize.

Kim won for his efforts to reconcile with North Korea, which registered dramatic success in June when he held a summit with the North’s communist leader, Kim Jong Il.

The opposition Grand National Party, which has accused Kim of being too soft on North Korea by giving grain and other aid to the communist government, grudgingly congratulated Kim.

Kim has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize annually since 1987, and he was considered a frontrunner this year.

Hopes and speculation ran so rampantly in Seoul that the Korean Federation of Industries, a lobbying group for big business, issued a congratulatory statement for Kim hours before the Oslo announcement.

Kim has pushed the so-called “sunshine” policy of seeking greater contact with North Korea.

South and North Korea, foes on the battlefield a half-century ago, have warmed to each other more in the last few months than in more than a generation. Their armies remain locked in a standoff across a sealed border, but the threat of war has diminished.

Ties between Pyongyang and Washington, Seoul’s closest ally, have also improved. U.S. President Bill Clinton is considering a visit to the North before he steps down in January.

Some South Koreans said the Nobel committee should also have recognized North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who has embarked on a vigorous campaign of international diplomacy this year after years of isolation.

“It would have been better for Kim Jong-il to share the prize,” said Oh Si-young, a 24-year-old student. “It would have been better for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

However, many people are bitter toward Kim Jong-il, citing his role as leader of a totalitarian regime and alleged perpetrator of terrorist acts during the ‘80s.