South Korea’s ruling party forced through the appointment of new Prime Minister Lee Yung Duk on Friday after opposition forces boycotted the vote amid mounting criticism that the Kim Young Sam administration is increasingly authoritarian.
The opposition Democratic Party had refused to ratify the Lee appointment unless Kim agreed to launch an investigation into allegations that illegal campaign contributions from a construction firm were funneled to his 1992 presidential campaign.
But after a week of political paralysis, the two sides failed to agree on terms of the investigation--including who should be called as witnesses. That left the ruling Democratic Liberal Party to ram through the appointment on the last day of the National Assembly session.
According to Korean press reports, Kim was impatient with the impasse and believed that he could not waste any more time with looming problems such as North Korea’s nuclear threat and mounting market-access demands. With local elections scheduled for next year, Kim reportedly believes that he has only this year to complete his programs before he becomes a lame duck.
Still, the political confrontation has fueled criticism that Kim, the nation’s first civilian president after three decades of military dictatorship, is losing his moral authority as a reformist figure. Besides the allegations of dirty campaign money was Kim’s firing last week of the highly popular prime minister, Lee Hoi Chang, for challenging presidential authority.
Lee, a former Supreme Court justice nicknamed “Bamboo” for his incorruptible adherence to principles, had opposed Kim’s order to form a committee on unification and national security issues under the president’s direct supervision.
Kim hoped such a committee would cut down on his administration’s disarray and discord over North Korea policy, but Lee objected to being cut out of the loop and balked at implementing the order.
Kim, outraged by what he reportedly viewed as a close ally’s personal betrayal, fired him--and was roundly criticized.
“Surely, Kim’s rash and intolerant dismissal of the popular prime minister has dealt a heavy blow to a prestige and popularity that had been enhanced by his ambitious reform drive,” the Korea Times said in an editorial this week.
Chang Dal Joong, a political science professor at Seoul National University, said many intellectuals have defected from Kim, whom they initially welcomed as the leader who would usher South Korea into a new era of civilian democracy.
But in the last year, he said, Kim has backed off from campaign promises to reform business conglomerates, known as chaebols , and has begun to bring back many of the old faces of the former military governments.
Despite his high-profile campaign against corruption, allegations of scandals involving him or his close aides are popping up regularly. The opposition charges that a construction company diverted millions of dollars into Kim’s 1992 presidential election fund from profits gained from a project to relocate the Sangmudae military base from downtown Kwangju to the city’s outskirts.
The leader of an herb dealer group has said he secretly gave $150,000 in lobbying funds to Kim’s son, Kim Hyon Chol, which were later siphoned into the presidential election campaign. Kim’s son has denied the charges and filed a libel suit against the herb dealer.
Two of Kim’s close allies, the mayor of Inchon and the governor of north Chungchong province, were recently caught distributing gifts in violation of election laws. And Kim’s Home Affairs Ministry is under attack for official negligence and abuse of power for failing to stop ruffians from attacking Buddhist monks protesting corruption against their leader last month.
The monks filed a complaint Friday with the Seoul district prosecutor’s office.
“Kim’s popularity seems to be facing a serious challenge from now on,” Chang said. “The moral basis of his reform politics seems destroyed quite a bit.”
Ruling party spokesman Ha Soon Bong blamed an internal power struggle between opposition leaders Kim Dae Jung and Lee Ki Taek for prolonging the nation’s political paralysis. As a power play to show who was tougher, they ended up making what they knew were unreasonable demands--for instance, to call President Kim as a witness in the Sangmudae scandal--leading to the impasse, he said.
Lee, the new prime minister, is regarded as a specialist in North-South issues. Appointed deputy prime minister and unification minister last year, Lee was chief negotiator in the Red Cross-sponsored talks over family reunification in the 1970s. A Pyongyang native, he also served as dean of Myong Ji University. He is considered conservative, although he has said he dislikes that term.
He is not expected to show the same independence as his predecessor. A political cartoon this week portrayed him prostrating himself before Kim.