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President's Reforms Stun South Koreans : Politics: Kim Young Sam promised changes. But their pace has surprised his admirers and critics alike.

March 14, 1993|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — When former opposition leader Kim Young Sam was campaigning for president as the governing party's candidate, he spoke of "reform within stability." To many South Koreans, the slogan did not sound very dramatic.

But only two weeks into office, the new president has let barely a day go by without announcing some new change.

Even as North Korea declared it will pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, his government unfolded a new policy of making public the names of draft dodgers, including sons of the rich and powerful. An investigation into suspicions of bribery triggered the resignation of the national police chief the same day.

In moves ranging from the mundane opening of streets around the presidential Blue House sealed off for 25 years by security-obsessed predecessors to uprooting political manipulation by the army and the National Security Planning Agency, Kim has left both admirers and critics breathless with his burst of reforms.

Kim's crossover to join forces with former President Roh Tae Woo in 1990 subjected him to condemnations as a traitor to the liberal causes he espoused for 34 years. Now, however, he is beginning to look like an opposition Trojan horse in the Establishment.

But Kim, lacking a strong personal base of support, already may be treading on dangerous ground. Rather than embracing the old military-led Establishment, he reached into the ranks of outside reformers and his own longstanding followers to fill major government and party posts.

Ruling Democratic Liberal Party members of the National Assembly, most of them loyalists of the military presidents of the 1980s, did not like Kim's order to disclose their families' assets. Nor did they welcome the news that Kim, who declared he would accept no political donations, would stop supplying the party with operating funds that had amounted to 3 billion won ($3.8 million) a month under Roh.

Kim told the party to tighten its belt, slash its staff in half and collect its own money.

The new president has proceeded without even trying to curry favor with the 625,000-member armed forces, which since 1961 had dictated who would sit atop South Korea's government. One of his first acts was to oust two top generals identified with a politically minded military clique. Naming his own men to replace them, he ordered the armed forces to clean up corruption and end brutality in basic training.

Kim drove home the point by downgrading the post of commander of the Defense Security Command to a two-star generalship and declaring that the military's "spy agency" chief would no longer have direct access to the president.

Similarly, Kim banned the director of the National Security Planning Agency (NSPA), a euphemistic name given to the old South Korean CIA, from attending Cabinet meetings. He arrested a still-influential former agency director on charges of staging terrorist attacks on the main opposition party in 1987. And, most dramatically, he dispatched a college professor, instead of the usual prosecutor or former general, to command the secretive organization and ensure that reforms are carried out.

The new director already has announced that 16 NSPA branches throughout the country will be shut down and surveillance of domestic politics ended.

Kim also trashed a practice that authoritarian former President Chun Doo Hwan had begun of appointing former generals as ambassadors.

"This is a virtual revolution," said Rep. Suh Sang Mok, a former government economist who is now the ruling party's policy coordinator. "He is giving up the tools of power."

Many of the changes Kim has brought about have been prosaic: letting the public into the grounds of the National Assembly; removing police from around the ruling party headquarters; astonishing a crowd of 30,000 by walking in their midst after his inauguration.

But each of the moves underscored the trappings of grandeur to which his predecessors had become accustomed.

An order to abolish 12 presidential "safehouses," in particular, astounded the public, which knew only vaguely of their existence. The structures had been used for entertaining, secret business deals and, at least occasionally, sexual assignations--such as the night in 1979 when President Park Chung Hee was killed in a safehouse during a party to which two women entertainers had been invited.

After seeing TV pictures of luxuriant Japanese toilets, Italian chandeliers and large double beds in the safehouses, one housewife spat out, "And our so-called leaders called themselves patriots who loved the country!"

Kim's inaugural pledge to allow no sanctuary for corruption or misdeeds has led to the ousting of five of his own appointees, spurred a dip in prices on the Seoul Stock Exchange and triggered a crash in luxurious forms of relaxation.

Kim, however, has stopped short of implementing "radical" reforms advocated principally by dissident groups outside the political structure.

Although he did announce an amnesty and release former students who killed seven policemen in an arson attack during a 1989 protest in Pusan, he left in jail about 140 people categorized by dissidents as "political prisoners." Nor has he reinstated more than 1,500 teachers fired by Roh for forming a union.

Initial public reaction has been favorable--even in circles normally aloof to politics.

Noting the return of civilian government for the first time in 32 years, Kim Do Kyoung of the Lucky-Goldstar Economic Research Institute declared, "I'm really proud of Korean democracy."

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