SEOUL — With a calm face amid a political firestorm, South Korean President Kim Young Sam vowed Wednesday to press ahead with democratic reforms despite suffering a devastating electoral defeat.
Kim--whose ruling Democratic Liberal Party won only five of 15 major races Tuesday in the first local elections in three decades--denied he would initiate a political shake-up. Instead, he expressed satisfaction that his government had presided over the cleanest elections in South Korea's checkered history of vote-rigging and bribery. The elections "paved the way for an electoral revolution," Kim said through his spokesman, Yoon Yeo Joon.
The magnitude of Kim's defeat became clear Wednesday, when final returns showed that the opposition Democratic Party had swept 23 of 25 ward chief seats in Seoul, the nation's capital. The opposition also won the critical post of Seoul mayor, who presides over one-quarter of the nation's population, and made first-time inroads in the northwestern provinces of Inchon City, where Seoul's port is located, and Kyonggi, which surrounds the capital.
Traditionally, the Democrats and their leader, Kim Dae Jung, have commanded only the southwestern region of Cholla--a reflection of the bitter regionalism that has long splintered this nation.
But their broad sweep among all age groups in Seoul, with its diverse regional mix, as well as their strong showing in areas outside their power base, could form the basis of South Korea's first truly national opposition party, analysts said.
"If you look at Korea, probably it has the healthiest form of democracy in Asia, where anyone can win a race," one political analyst said. "A growing amount of turf is anyone's battlefield. This represents the grass-roots development of the whole party system."
But opposition leaders themselves were more cautious.
Despite their euphoric mood, they noted that South Koreans had opted to vote along regional lines, effectively splitting power among the "three Kims": Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil, a former ruling party official who formed his own party, the United Liberal Democrats, in February after being booted out of Kim Young Sam's government. "We are on the threshold of a new stage, but forming a national opposition party won't be possible until the day discrimination against Cholla disappears," said Sul Hoon, Democratic Party deputy spokesman.
Kim Young Sam had unsuccessfully urged voters to put aside regional loyalties and support his party's national call for a generational shift to fresh political faces. Seoul voters also rejected a call for new blood by electing the Democratic Party's Cho Soon, a former deputy prime minister and economist.
Analysts said the election might, paradoxically, heal the regional fractures by setting up a power-sharing system for the first time--a break with the past political dominance of the nation by the southeastern provinces of Taegu and North and South Kyongsang.
In any case, Sul said, the opposition Democrats would concentrate for now on forging alliances with Kim Jong Pil's party to step up challenges against the government.
The election's biggest winner--opposition leader Kim Dae Jung--urged the president to open the portals of power and cooperate with his rivals in crafting national policy. Kim retired from politics in 1992 after losing his third presidential bid and has since devoted himself to the study of reunification with North Korea and global political issues.
Many observers expect Kim to use his party's startling electoral victory as a springboard for a political comeback.