He first entered politics in 1954, opposing the policies of Syngman Rhee, but did not win a seat in government until 1961. After several arrests in the 1970s, Kim was sentenced to death on charges of sedition and conspiracy; that sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison.
In 1985, after a brief exile in the U.S., he resumed his role as one of the principal leaders of the political opposition. When the first democratic presidential election was held in 1987 after ex-general Chun Doo-hwan's retirement, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam ran against each other, splitting the opposition vote and enabling ex-general Roh Tae-woo (Chun Doo-hwan's hand-picked successor) to win.
In 1997, Kim Dae-jung won the presidential election, replacing Kim Young-sam as president.
The preceding presidents Park Chunghee, Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, and Kim Young-sam all came from the relatively wealthy Gyeongsang region. Kim Dae-jung was the first president to serve out his full term who came from the Jeolla region in the southwest, an area that traditionally has done worse economically than other parts of the country, at least partly because of politics.
In 2000, he participated in the first North-South presidential summit with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The peace prize has brought much controversy, however. Currently, the former president faces allegations of forming an organizational lobby to assist him winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also suspected of having given government money to Hyundai, which in turn paid the money to the North Korean government (ostensibly for such things as opening up the Kŭmgang-san tourist area). In addition, it is alleged that he concealed his knowledge of North Korea's nuclear weapons program even though he was informed of it before the summit.