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At 93 and on quest to become Korea's oldest Ph.D. grad

Kim Dae-jung's former aide, Kwon No-gab, aims to write doctoral dissertation on the ex-president

Sept. 27, 2023 - 15:10 By Yoon Min-sik
Kwon No-gab speaks during an interveiw with The Korea Herald. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Ninety-three years old and still chasing his dreams, Kwon No-gab, the chairman of the Kim Dae-jung Foundation and adviser to the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, recently attended his first class as an English Literature doctoral student.

He said he aims to complete his dissertation by the time he turns 95 in two years' time, an ambitious goal for any doctorate pursuant. The record for the oldest Korean to earn a Ph.D. is held by Lee Sang-suk, who obtained the degree at the age of 92 earlier this year.

The subject of Kwon's dissertation has already been set The man who was a giant in South Korean politics, a democracy fighter, the architect of the “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and his dear mentor, comrade, “family” and lifelong idol: the late President Kim Dae-jung.

“My goal is that I’d devote myself to President Kim until the very end. Without him, I never would have lived (my) life like this, to be commended with a human rights award, to be celebrated in front of people in the US,” said Kwon, in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

In 2023's Korea, as well as among aspiring political leaders worldwide, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the life of the late leader, he continued, adding that he hopes that his doctoral research can contribute to disseminating Kim's ideas.

Boxing, English and Kim Dae-jung

Sporting a polished look with neatly combed back hair and perfectly fitted suit, Kwon commands the room when he speaks, leading the conversation like a politician or CEO at the prime of his career.

"Retired? No, I've never retired. My day is just as busy as usual," he quipped in response to a question about how long he has been in retirement.

“I work out three times a week, go to school twice a week. I get up at 7:30 in the morning and I go to bed at midnight. And I watch all the news,” said Kwon, who has been in politics for the bulk of his career.

At Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, he shares a classroom with students young enough to be his grandchildren -- many considerably younger.

“It is fun,” he said, although there’s a lot to read. He drinks coffee and stays up late to prepare for class.

English has long been his passion, although the path of his life never truly allowed him to pursue it as much as he wished. It may be this unfulfilled desire that kept him coming back to English later in life, he said.

In 2013, at age 83, he earned a master's in English Literature from the same university and had briefly enrolled at a doctorate course at Dongguk University, where he completed his undergraduate studies more than half a century ago.

In his formative years, Kwon wished to be a boxing champion.

He trained, sacrificing school grades, with his eyes set on representing the recently liberated country at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. He won the provincial round in the national player selection process, but ultimately failed to secure a spot in the Olympic squad.

Kwon No-gab strikes an uppercut as he poses for photography prior to an interview, held at the Kim Dae-jung Library in Seoul's Sinchon on Sept. 15. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Aside from his athletic pursuits, English held a special place in his heart.

“First I started studying out of curiosity, but I soon realized that English would become a global language. Whether I went into business or other things in society, I had to study English. That’s when I began,” he said. He has since kept close tabs on international affairs through English media, he said, including The Korea Herald that was established in 1953 as The Korean Republic.

English skills proved invaluable during the early part of his life. He secured a job as an interpreter at a US base in Busan during the 1950-53 Korean War. Following the war, he transitioned to teaching English at a high school in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province.

When the boxing craze swept through South Korea, marked by the emergence of world boxing champions from the country, he turned his attention to a business venture aimed at assisting local boxers in securing international matches and agents.

“Being one of the few in the industry with English skills, I wanted to be a promoter,” he recalled.

But his life took a significant turn when Kim Dae-jung, who by that time had already established himself as the rival to the military dictator Park Chung-hee, reached out to him.

“(Kim) told me, ‘Park Chung-hee is trying to get rid of me ahead of the presidential election. I need your help.'” And that was enough.

Instead of promoting boxing, Kwon became the right-hand man to then-lawmaker Kim, the man he had admired ever since they first met in Mokpo.

Kim was four years his senior in school and while he left an impression on Kwon during their school years, their first real encounter came a few years later.

One day, several high school students got embroiled in a huge fight, one that escalated to involve weapons at one point, he recalled. The head of the local police and fire department arrived at the scene, accompanied by a young man, a humble employee at a local company.

The man jumped onto the roof of the police car and gave a little speech that violence was not the way and said that he would step up to solve this issue.

"That’s when I realized that (he) was the man I would always look up to,” Kwon said.

Kim’s 'forever chief of staff’

Speaking to The Herald at the office that the late President Kim used until passing away in 2009, Kwon spoke at length about the man who profoundly transformed his life.

When asked to describe his relationship with Kim, he likened it to more of a family bond.

At his wedding, with his parents already having passed away, the Kim couple filled in for them. In fact, it was Kim's late wife, Lee Hee-ho, who first introduced him to his wife, Kwon said.

Kwon plans to have Kim's work translated to English while preparing for the paper, which he says will help spread his ideas and accomplishments across the world.

“Kim had a clear philosophy in politics. On the base of it all was the respect and love he had for the people,” he said.

The importance of communication was also what he learned from watching his mentor at a close range.

“He (Kim Dae-jung) would always talk to the foreign press, discuss things and get new ideas.

“I don’t see a lot of politicians today studying. They should meet up with prestigious scholars in each field for discussions. This would allow them to come up with a blueprint as to what they would do if they are elected,” he said, which could be applied to people in general.

Kwon lamented the lack of communication that leads to conflict rampant across South Korea, from politics, gender to inter-generation.

Kwon No-gab (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

“People shouldn’t just lock horns. ... They should each compromise a little and find the middle ground,” he said, adding that studying Kim’s philosophy shown in his works or the letters he sent in prison could help.

“He (Kim) was a man who always worked hard to find the solution. If (other people’s ideas) were opposed to him, he would negotiate and compromise,” Kwon said.

In his opinion, this is what many of the politicians and people of South Korea today could learn from Kim.

“Rather than to just push ahead with one’s ideas and opinions, they should listen to others. You can’t compromise if you insist on always having your way," he said.

Kwon himself has had a lengthy illustrious career as a politician, multiple parliamentary seats, chief of staff to the party leader and other various posts in the liberal bloc. But he still says his biggest contribution was helping former President Kim.

“I’m thankful that he turned my life around completely. On my tombstone, I would like the words ‘Kim Dae-jung’s chief of staff’ to be engraved.”