POLITICS : S. Korea Ponders the Race of ‘Two Kims'--and a Ross Perot


For the first time in South Korea’s 44-year history, two non-Establishment figures are out in front, neck and neck, in the race for the presidency.

The South Korean Cabinet this week fixed Dec. 18 as the date for the election. Although as many as a dozen candidates have announced that they will register when official campaigning begins Nov. 20, the race boils down to a “two Kims” battle with one “Ross Perot” spoiler.

Kim Young Sam, 65, who until 1990 had spent virtually all his political career battling coups and authoritarian rulers, is favored, but mainly because outgoing President Roh Tae Woo hand-picked him as the standard-bearer of the ruling party. Voters have never rejected a government candidate in the few free presidential elections that have been held in South Korea.

Two years ago, Kim abandoned his position as leader of one of three opposition parties to bring his followers into the ruling camp and give Roh’s party a majority in the National Assembly. Although Kim has cuddled up to the business-bureaucrat-military leaders who hold power in South Korea, he remains an “adopted son” of the Establishment.

Two leading figures have walked out of the ruling party as a protest against Kim’s nomination.


Opposing him is Kim Dae Jung, 68, a twice-defeated presidential candidate who was vilified by the nation’s powerful, 625,000-strong armed forces, abducted, placed under house arrest, imprisoned, sentenced to death for treason and purged from politics between 1973 and 1987. A victory for him would overturn much of the Establishment.

Both Kims have argued forcefully for maintaining good relations with the United States and retaining the 37,000 U.S. troops now stationed here as a safeguard against potential aggression from Communist North Korea. But both also oppose any opening of Korea’s agricultural markets, especially rice.

Although American officials are officially retaining a tight-lipped neutrality, U.S. diplomats stationed here over the years have often criticized the strong-willed Kim Dae Jung as a political grandstander.

Kim Young Sam finished second and Kim Dae Jung third in a 1987 race against Roh, who is forbidden by the constitution to seek a second term.

But this time Roh took the unprecedented step of resigning from the ruling party and naming a neutral Cabinet to take the government bureaucracy out of the campaign. And Kim Young Sam, although rated as a likable, politically savvy leader, lost much of his credibility when he gave up his opposition roots in 1990.

Analysts rate the election as a toss-up, with both of the Kims fighting for about one-third of the votes.

Billionaire Chung Ju Yung, 76, founder of the massive Hyundai conglomerate and the man who is running as a Ross Perot-type spoiler, is credited only with tightening the race by taking votes away from Kim Young Sam, the government standard-bearer.

Five years ago, as the government rang down the curtain on authoritarian rule, the burning issue was the question of who could best carry out a transition to democratic rule. This time, the election focuses on who can best cure pessimism over the future of the Korean economy.

Acknowledging the widespread gloom that pervades the nation despite Korea’s performance as the fastest-growing economy in Asia since 1985, Kim Young Sam cites what he called “the Korean disease” of “deteriorating values, disorder and defeatism.” Armed with a thin ruling-party majority in the National Assembly, Kim contends that he will restore “authority.”

But his foe, Kim Dae Jung, whose party controls only a third of the assembly seats, insists that “the people want change, and we are the only alternative they have,” and adds: “If Americans can change their government, why can’t we?”