South Korea today is mourning its former president, Nobel laureate and long-term leader of its democracy movement, Kim Dae-jung, who died yesterday at the age of 83 (or perhaps 85 — sources vary). Kim’s remarkable life parallels the remarkable journey that South Korea has travelled since the Second World War.

With its post-war partition re-inforced by the Korean War, the Korean peninsula was divided into a communist north and a “free” south. But South Korea was not free in any more than a relative sense — for thirty years it was largely governed by corrupt and repressive dictators.

Kim Dae-jung was the courageous leader of the democratic opposition. It was a perilous job: in 1973 he was kidnapped in Japan by agents of dictator Park Chung-hee, and it is believed that only American intervention prevented his murder. In 1980, when the military crushed a popular uprising that followed Park’s assassination, he was arrested and sentenced to death for sedition, but the sentence was commuted and he was allowed to flee to the United States.

Although the US saved Kim’s life, South Korea was a prime example of the weakness of Western (and specifically American) policy during the Cold War. American influence worked against the democracy movement, and while a preference for the “lesser evil” could be justified in the short term — even at their most badly-governed, South Koreans were better off than their cousins in the north — in the long run it threw away the West’s moral advantage, and left most of the client states weaker rather than stronger.

Only with the winding down of the Cold War in the late 1980s did democracy return to South Korea. Kim returned to the country and was allowed to compete in democratic elections in 1987, won by the military’s preferred candidate, Roh Tae-woo. Finally, in 1997, at his fourth attempt, Kim was elected president, and served until his retirement in 2003.

The high point of Kim’s presidency was the summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-il in 2000, fulfilling his long-standing belief that détente with the north was possible. But the relationship failed to blossom as much as had been hoped, and Kim’s domestic record was generally seen as uninspiring. Like most Korean leaders, he was also plagued by allegations of corruption and nepotism.

Kim’s career is also a study in how electoral systems matter. Popular demonstrations in the 1980s forced the military to concede free elections, but the system they adopted was a nationwide first-past-the-post vote for president. Roh was therefore able to win the 1987 election with just 36.6% of the vote, because Kim split the opposition vote with rival Kim Young-sam.

But ten years later, the system worked in Kim’s favor: it was the conservatives who split their vote, and Kim won with 40.3%. How much of their country’s history might have been different if the demonstrators had demanded preferential voting?