TAERI, South Korea — Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, in a journey to his roots that looked like the launching of a presidential campaign, returned Wednesday to the island village of his birth.
Past fields of rice and soybeans, through the unpaved lanes of the village of Taeri, past thatched-roof houses and up a gentle hillside of pine and tall grass that overlooks the ocean, Kim went to pay homage at the graves of his parents.
In a Confucian ritual heavy with Korean tradition, the hometown hero knelt before their tombstone, with rice wine, cakes and candies, pears, apples, grapes, a cooked chicken and a roasted boar's head placed as offerings, with the aroma of incense wafting on the afternoon breeze.
Kim, 63, who is a Roman Catholic, then made the sign of the cross, went on up the hillside to honor his elder brother's grave and returned to the village to visit his sister-in-law's home.
Democracy and Beef Prices
In an earlier address delivered nearby at a cemetery where other ancestors lie, Kim spoke to the farmers and fishermen of his home island of Haui, located off the southwest coast of the Korean peninsula. He spoke of dictatorship and democracy, of national pride, national reunification--and of the price of beef.
He favored higher beef prices. But he stressed democracy.
"I have been a national assemblyman, I have been a candidate for president, I have done a lot of things, but I have never done anything for the people of my hometown," Kim told the crowd of about 2,000, as their faces spoke adoration of the famous man making his first visit home in 28 years.
"Yet you gave me such a warm welcome back," Kim continued. "I am grateful. . . . I wanted to do something so that all people in all villages throughout the nation can live in a free and fair country. As a result I was jailed by a handful of people who did not want that. But the fact that I am here today demonstrates the great power of our people. We are now heading toward democracy."
Kim, sounding like a politician on the campaign trail, made promises of a better government if the opposition takes power. He spoke of the need for workers and farmers to receive fair pay for their labors. He called for more government support of rural services to stem the flow of young people out of the countryside. And he called for firm anti-communism balanced with the opening of a dialogue with Communist North Korea.
"Kim Dae Jung is not only a great man in this country, he is a great man by world standards," said Kim Sang Sup, 69, a Taeri farmer who heard Kim speak. "He is a man of peace. He protects the weak and the suppressed. He is strong against powerful men but gentle to the weak. . . . If fair elections are held there is no doubt he will become president."
But whether Kim will run in the presidential election planned for mid-December is not clear. He and South Korea's other top opposition leader, Kim Young Sam, 58, president of the Reunification Democratic Party, have pledged that just one of them will run. They have not yet agreed who it should be.
While the two Kims differ little on policy, Kim Young Sam is generally viewed as more acceptable to the military and other current power-holders in South Korea. Kim Dae Jung, who spent most of the past 16 years in prison, exile or under house arrest for his opposition activities, is a more populist leader who some South Koreans believe would be unacceptable to the military men and former military men who control this country. Some fear his nomination or election could prompt a coup.
It is against this background, and the memory of the exultant welcome given Kim Dae Jung by more than 300,000 people Tuesday in the city of Kwangju, capital of his home province, that the two Kims will resume discussion during the next few weeks on who should be the opposition party nominee.
Whoever is chosen is expected to face Roh Tae Woo, 54, head of the ruling Democratic Justice Party and its presidential nominee, in the planned mid-December election, which would be South Korea's first free presidential election in 16 years. President Chun Doo Hwan, 56, who has pledged to step down in February, supports Roh as his successor.
Roh plans to visit the United States for several days beginning Sunday in what is widely viewed in South Korea as an attempt to give his candidacy an image of American support.
Earlier Wednesday, Kim was greeted along the roadside by tens of thousands of people as his entourage made its way in a three-hour drive from Kwangju to the sea. He is scheduled to attend a church service and a prayer meeting today in the coastal city of Mokpo before returning to Seoul by train this afternoon.