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From Pariah to President: Outsider Will Lead S. Korea : Politics: Labeled a turncoat by critics, onetime opposition leader takes helm of nation beset by worrisome neighbor to north, sagging economy.

February 24, 1993|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Throughout the first half of the 1980s, neither Kim Young Sam's name nor his photograph was allowed to appear in South Korea's mass media. Purged from politics, he spent two years under house arrest. A 23-day hunger strike endangered his life but was ignored by the nation's authoritarian leader. As recently as six years ago, he was manhandled by riot police and gassed during protests demanding democracy.

Now the pariah is about to become president, launching South Korea's first truly civilian government in 32 years.

Kim's five-year term won't be easy. He faces: emotional divisions within South Korea and his ruling Democratic Liberal Party; a truculent Communist North Korea and its suspected development of nuclear weapons; worries of further withdrawals of U.S. troops; public condemnation of corruption; a sagging economy.

But Kim already has moved to alleviate the overwhelming enmity in the southeast Cholla area toward him and leading figures of the southeast Kyongsang region who have dominated South Korea since former generals from Taegu started running governments here in 1961.

Hwang In Sung, his new prime minister, comes from the Cholla area, where Kim got only 2% of the votes cast in December's presidential election. Long-suffering Cholla residents have never forgiven Kim for failing to support Kim Dae Jung, their native hero, in the 1987 election and handing victory to President Roh Tae Woo by splitting the opposition vote with his own unsuccessful candidacy.

Kim also has extended an olive branch to segments of the ruling party that remain cool toward him by inviting former President Chun Doo Hwan, the man who turned him into a pariah, to attend his inauguration ceremony Thursday.

Chun's admirers still exercise clout in the ruling party, and after spending most of a 40-year political career in the opposition, Kim finds himself a newcomer to the Establishment.

In 1979, the late President Park Chung Hee had him ousted as leader of the opposition. Then, when Kim gave an interview to a foreign correspondent urging the United States to push for more democracy in South Korea, Park stripped him of his seat in the National Assembly.

Ambition that dated to his junior high days--when he hung a banner in his room that read, "Kim Young Sam, Future President"--sustained him through the pariah years of Chun's rule.

But to critics, the ambition also led to the opposition split in 1987 and, ultimately, to Kim's breathtaking decision to join with Roh to give the former general's ruling party a majority that it lacked in the National Assembly. In return, Roh promised to anoint Kim as his successor at the helm of the government party in the December election that Kim won with 42% of the vote against six challengers.

To those who labeled him a turncoat, Kim retorted, "Those who cannot put the past behind them do not have any future."

Kim billed himself as a "clean" politician bent on uprooting under-the-table deals involving the government and business. He has promised to become the first South Korean president to reveal his personal assets and has vowed to return to his modest, middle-class home in the Sangdo section of Seoul after he steps down.

Indeed, Chun's henchmen could find no trace of corruption when they sought excuses for a political purge in the wake of their takeover in 1980. Illicit gains were listed for a host of other political leaders, but for Kim, they issued only undocumented charges of "womanizing."

Kim has vowed to end the government's traditional role of running the economy and to deregulate business and banking. And despite a continuing refusal to open South Korea's markets to rice imports, he insists he supports free trade.

Known as a shrewd political strategist and a leader with a pleasant personality, Kim has never laid claim to prowess as a thinker or policy-maker, despite his graduation from the prestigious Seoul National University. Once asked why he spent so much time climbing mountains and so little time reading books, he replied, "You can always borrow brains, but you can't borrow health."

He is expected to rely heavily on assistants in his presidential Blue House and on the bureaucracy for policy recommendations. As a result, reforms that Kim has promised to cure what he calls the "Korean disease"--a slackening work ethic and diminishing respect for authority--promise to be limited.

Little change is expected in what outgoing U.S. Ambassador Donald P. Gregg has called the "trench warfare" American diplomats face in trying to free up regulations on doing business in South Korea.

Nor in Kim's promises to give priority to revitalizing Asia's third-largest economy is there any sign that South Korea will abandon its export-above-all policies. Indeed, one of Kim's main economic pledges was to restore trade surpluses. Although the GNP doubled under Roh, growth dipped to close to 4% last year--a level equated with recession by Koreans accustomed to 8% and 9% expansion.

But in naming an all-civilian presidential secretariat, Kim raised hopes that his lifelong commitment to democracy will induce him to polish off reforms that Roh implemented incompletely.

Kim has vowed to continue to withhold economic cooperation until North Korea allows full inspection of its nuclear facilities. And further reduction of U.S. troops stationed here--now down to 36,000--is a subject Kim says he doesn't even wish to discuss.

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