A Korean Leader for These Times

Times columnist Tom Plate is a UCLA professor. E-mail:

In the wake of his election to South Korea’s presidency last week, Kim Dae Jung, the veteran of political prisons, exile and even assassination plots during his country’s rougher past, now hears himself being touted as the Nelson Mandela of Asia. While that’s far too glib, undoubtedly Korea could use someone of Mandela’s stature. And because of the feared contagion effect of Korea’s suddenly suspect economy, so could all of Asia. Everyone is hoping that this brave career reformer is just what history ordered.

D.J., as his friends call him, defeated the government party candidate, but the victor himself would surely agree that the real winners last week were the South Korean people. They deserve far better than they have been getting from their politicians. In a triumph of democratic process--and with a voter turnout topping 80%--the one candidate in the field of contenders who was outside the establishment was chosen. And “Korean yuppie” Kim, though 73 (even by non-ageist Asian standards he is getting up there for such a high-pressure job) was the favorite of Koreans under 40.

During the campaign I interviewed this tough survivor. His craggy face that fall day in Seoul was wan, his eyes ringed with circles of fatigue. But his mind was sharp (he kept refining the translator’s work and making his points with vigor). As president, he said, he would work hard to soothe the nation’s deep divisions. “Regional and class conflict is a serious Korean problem,” admitted the candidate, whose popularity is rooted in western and southern Korea. “My main priority will be to bring about national reconciliation. I will seek legislation to prohibit discrimination against any Korean for any reason. I will seek legislation to prohibit political reprisals. There is a lot of fear among ruling groups that I will retaliate. I will not.” The president-elect has endorsed the pardon for South Korea’s two imprisoned former presidents.


Even months ago, Kim sensed that Korea was headed for difficult economic times--and what he told me then should reassure not only the world markets but the International Monetary Fund, too: “I will make sure the Korean economy is run entirely by market principles. Korea has been too greatly affected by government policies and the official opposition--and by corruption and crime. This is a recipe for failure. Corruption is especially pronounced in government and the upper echelons. We need a grand social purification, so that people who live correctly and righteously can find success.” A phrase like “grand purification” generally sets off alarms with me, but from Kim it seemed like fitting balm for a system that Korea’s unkindest critics have said is sodden from crony capitalism. I just hope the international banks and the International Monetary Fund work closely and harmoniously with the president-elect and take the long view about Korea, whose net foreign debt is on a par with Australia’s, whose aggregate domestic credit is not out of line with its gross domestic product and which has only a relatively minor current account problem. Korea is not by any means a terminally ill economy.

Americans will like this man who likes America. We should indefinitely maintain our troops, he said, and our high profile in the region: “This helps suppress any possibility of military hegemony by China or Japan.” He also had some friendly advice for difficult neighbor North Korea, with which he is prepared to hold a summit conference: “Please tell North Korea that insisting on U.S. withdrawal is not wise. In the struggle between Japan and China, left alone, Korea would be a small shrimp caught between two whales. And if the U.S. were to withdraw, our defense budget would skyrocket.” To bring permanent peace to the peninsula, Kim would have the United States organize a Helsinki-type process, involving not only the two Koreas but also Japan, China, Russia and Mongolia.

Kim quarrels with Washington on one major issue: He’s leery of any expansion of Tokyo’s military role, as the recently renegotiated U.S.-Japan security agreement would seem to foster. “U.S. policy is sometimes naive about Japan--be cautious,” he warned. “Be wary of a revival from the ultraconservatives there. Notice that Tokyo has showed no real national repentance for the atrocities during World War II. Many East Asians are worried about your new security treaty [with Japan]. It could inadvertently and unintentionally drive Japan toward remilitarization. I understand fully why the U.S. is going in that direction--U.S. fear of China is driving this. But you must understand that China has fears, too.”

President-elect Kim drew a picture of a populist presidency, not an imperial one: “What I’m saying is not what I individually want, but what the people want. My presidency will be myself plus the people.” I believed Kim when he said this, but today South Korea’s National Assembly remains, despite his triumph, under the control of the rival establishment party.

Let us all hope that the politics of Seoul won’t descend to the tawdry level of Washington’s. And let us all wish South Korea’s new president good health and good fortune in steering Korea out of its current economic darkness.