Fourteen years ago, Kim Dae-jung was a pro-democracy activist living in exile in Washington, struggling with his English and with American officials who saw him as a pest.
"I was an irritant that the State Department and the president wanted to do without," Kim wrote about the Reagan administration in his unpublished autobiography. "The White House consistently rebuffed my direct approaches and my request for a meeting with the president."When President Kim of South Korea returns to the United States for a nine-day state visit beginning Saturday, he will get better treatment. This time he is to stay in Washington at Blair House, the American government's official guest residence, and address a joint session of Congress.
Kim, the onetime dissident who became South Korea's president in February, will also get a state dinner at the White House, receive a human rights award and pick up an honorary degree at Georgetown University.
Yet, asked if he was tempted to pick up the telephone at Blair House and place an "I told you so" call to some of the former gate-keepers who used to fend him off, Kim paused only a moment to savor the idea. He grinned and demurred, but he said he did draw some lessons from his reversal of fortune.
"You have to live long," he said with a sparkle in his eye.
Kim has indeed lived long - he is 74 - and he credits his survival in part to American intervention when Korean dictators planned to kill him. That makes his state visit an especially poignant moment, diplomats and Korean officials say.
Moreover, Kim in some ways trumpets what are often called American values even more than Americans do.
"The fact that the United States so frequently speaks out on human rights issues in other countries, sometimes to the disadvantage of its own national interests, that is what makes the United States great, that is what makes it earn respect from around the world," Kim said in an hourlong interview this week in Blue House, the presidential mansion in Seoul.
Still, Kim acknowledged that in some respects he is now in the position of the officials who fended him off when he was a dissident. Asked if he sometimes faces a choice between his moral principles and the dictates of statecraft, when he ponders whether to speak out on issues like human rights in China, Kim nodded.
"I am faced with that dilemma," he said. "And certainly I cannot say at this point whether I will or will not make a public statement about that. But I do have a great deal of personal interest in what happens in China" and Burma.
These days, Kim has emerged to some extent as a spokesman for the region and not just his country. The state visit to America will add to his stature and to this regional leadership role, a role that he seems to relish.
"As painful as the current situation is, we wish to use it as much as we can to push through economic reforms, to make our democracy stronger, so that we will be a model for the Asian region, a model that says that you have to promote democracy and the free market in parallel, and that the future of Asia lies in this model," Kim said.
Yet for Kim to sustain his role as a model for the region, he will first have to overcome South Korea's economic crisis. And that too is a reason for the state visit: Kim will begin his visit in the financial capital of New York, not the political capital of Washington, and he will emphasize South Korea's efforts to restructure its economy and woo foreign investors.