Kim Dae-jung was born in Mokpo, in South Korea's North Cholla province, to a farmer and his wife. Kim claims to have been born in January 1925, but his birth was not officially registered at that time. 

Kim, a devout Roman Catholic and talented public speaker, ran a trading company and a newspaper in Mokpo before becoming a pro-democracy activist in the 1950s. 

In 1971, Kim ran for president against military strongman Park Chung Hee. During the campaign, in which Park portrayed Kim as a pro-North Korean radical, a truck crashed into Kim's car and injured him in what was rumored to be a government assassination attempt. Park won the election, which was widely believed to have been rigged. 

In 1973, the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency abducted Kim from a hotel in Tokyo, Japan, and nearly executed him by drowning. South Korea relented under intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and Japan and released Kim. Kim survived at least one other alleged assassination attempt by the government. 

In 1980, Kim was convicted on sedition charges after pro-democracy demonstrations in the city of Kwangju and sentenced to death by hanging. His sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1981, and in 1982 he was freed and exiled to the U.S., where he lived for 26 months. 

Kim spent a total of six years in prison and another seven under house arrest. The censored correspondence he was allowed while imprisoned was later published as a book, Prison Writings

In 1987, he and Kim Young Sam, another opposition leader, were allowed to run in the first direct presidential election since before Park's rule. They split the opposition vote, and Roh Tae Woo, the choice of outgoing president Chun Doo Hwan, won. Kim won one-third of the vote in the 1992 election but lost to Kim Young Sam. 

After the 1992 election, Kim said he would retire from politics. But in July 1995 he said his disappointment in the presidency of Kim Young — who was barred by law from seeking another term — prompted his decision to return and form a new party, the National Congress for New Politics. Later that year, his reputation was tarnished when he confessed to accepting political payments from Roh. 

Opposition allegations that Lee's sons, Lee Soo Yon and Lee Jung Yon, had avoided compulsory military service also damaged his "Mr. Clean" reputation of integrity within days of his nomination for the presidency. Both of Lee's sons had been excused from service when they reported for duty and were found to be severely underweight. They were accused of having intentionally lost some 20 pounds after their initial military physical examinations. Lee, in an interview published in the Washington Post August 17, did not explain his sons' weight loss but insisted, "This has nothing to do with being from the privileged class." 

In spite of the scandals, on Dec. 18, 1997, South Koreans ended five decades of one-party rule by electing Kim president. 

Kim defeated Lee Hoi Chang, the candidate of the ruling Grand National Party, which had recently changed its name from the New Korea Party, and Rhee In Je, governor of Kyongki province. Rhee was a former NKP member whose candidacy helped split supporters of the ruling party when he formed the New Party by the People. Kim's candidacy was supported in an unlikely coalition by the conservative United Liberal Democratic Party. 

In October 1998, Kim made his first trip to Japan as president. The trip was marked by an unprecedented apology by Japanese Premier Keizo Obuchi for Japan's brutal occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. 

Over the years, Kim has been attacked by South Korea's opposition Grand National Party for his overtures to North Korea, saying they have shown few results for South Korea. But in April of 2000, Kim was criticized for announcing the summit with North Korea just three days before National Assembly elections. The oppostion questioned what they called the convenient timing of the announcement. Kim's Millennium Democratic Party gained seats in the assembly, but failed to surpass the number of seats held by the opposition. 

Kim and his wife Lee Hee Ho have one son. Kim has two sons from a previous marriage.