Koreans Bring a Dissident in From Cold as Leader
Election victory for opposition candidate yesterday is evidence of a maturing democracy.
Yesterday's election of a president in South Korea may well be a triumph of democracy in Asia. It may also help relieve tension with North Korea and further restore a battered economy.
But for Kim Dae Jung, the man leading the vote count at press time, the election demonstrates the power of perseverance.
Once one of Asia's leading dissidents against dictatorship, Mr. Kim has endured exile, assassination attempts, and three failed bids to become president. His victory is the first time Koreans have chosen a president from an opposition party. That's notable in a young democracy that rose to become the world's 11th biggest economy mainly under military rule.
His perseverance will be tested as he takes over the grim task of forcing fundamental reforms under a $57 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
It now falls to Kim, when he takes office in February, to shepherd his country through what many Koreans feel is a humiliating process of dismantling collusive ties between government and business and creating a more market-oriented economy.
The reforms mean slower growth, rising unemployment, and a lower standard of living for many Koreans over the next few years. Kim is stepping into a political minefield, but his background may help him.
Kim is a Roman Catholic with, in the words of journalist and author Mark Clifford, "a martyr's fatalistic sense of certainty that what he is doing is right."
He came close to martyrdom several times at the hands of South Korea's military dictators and on two of those occasions, United States pressure was the key factor in saving his life.
He is considered the perennial outsider in Korean politics, a man who has struggled for greater democracy and equity - often alongside radical students and militant unions - against the pillars of military, bureaucratic, and corporate power.
"He has been active for a long time facing the conservative establishment," says Korea University political scientist Choi Jang Jip, "so I think he has a broader, freer hand in dealing with the most powerful forces in this society."
On the other hand, his ties to the labor movement may inhibit him from taking steps that will cause unemployment and lower wages. He hinted during the campaign that he might renegotiate the IMF agreement if elected, but since the weekend he has assured audiences that he would abide by its terms.
"He will observe the agreement between the IMF and the Korean government both in principle and in practice," says Cho Se Hyung, the acting president of Kim's political party, the National Congress for New Politics. But the prospect of rising unemployment "is a very difficult problem for him," Mr. Cho adds.
Kim also represents the southwestern Cholla provinces, a region largely bypassed during the years of boom growth. Its residents have long been subject to discrimination and prejudice in South Korea, and his victory is in some sense their triumph as well - some districts in the area voted for Kim by 90 percent or more.
Historians believe he lost his first bid for the presidency, in 1971, because the contest was rigged by dictator Park Chung Hee. In 1987 and 1992, he had to share the opposition vote with longtime rival Kim Young Sam, the 1992 victor and the outgoing president.
An estimated 80 percent of South Korea's 32.5 million voters went to the polls and, according to projections by local television networks, Kim was expected to receive approximately 40 percent of the vote.
He was expected to edge out Lee Hoi Chang, the ruling party candidate, by only one or two percent. A third candidate, Rhee In Je, was projected to receive about 19 percent.
This election has been the cleanest and cheapest in South Korean history. In previous contests the Blue House, as the seat of presidential power is known, and the country's intelligence services were mobilized on behalf of the ruling party candidate.
This time Mr. Lee, a jurist turned politician who heads the ruling Grand National Party, reportedly sold his own house to finance his campaign. And a stock-in-trade of Korean politics - big outdoor rallies that prospective voters were paid to attend - were banned in favor of televised debates.
"This campaign has definitely been a change in terms of campaign money - the three leading candidates and their parties have had limited funds," says Professor Choi.
The campaign was waged more on personality and accusation than on policy, so it is difficult to predict Kim's economic strategy or how he will make the trade-offs that reform will demand.
But analysts and supporters do say that Kim is likely to soften South Korea's line on its northern neighbor.
"He will go slowly and in a step-by-step fashion," says Cho, the NCNP acting president. "But he will steadily approach the goal of unification. This is a turning point for our national vision."
This election also marks another phase in the democratization of Asia. In recent years, other countries in the region, such as Thailand and the Philippines, have seen democratic institutions become more entrenched.
The argument that Asians are inclined to put up with authoritarian rule if it preserves economic growth and group harmony is growing harder to defend.