SEOUL — Call him the kamikaze of South Korean politics.
In moving dramatically to resolve South Korea's monthlong labor crisis, President Kim Young Sam has again displayed a penchant for employing stunning, bold tactics while keeping a keen eye on shifts in public opinion.
Kim has shocked many here with his abrupt concessions this week--agreeing to meet the political opposition, to reopen parliamentary debate on controversial labor and national security laws and to suspend arrest warrants for union leaders who initiated costly strikes.
But such moves are characteristic of his high-risk political style, which has brought about once-unthinkable accomplishments in attacking corruption, military domination of government and other entrenched evils in the four years of his presidency.
The main questions now are whether Kim will go down as a champion or enemy of democracy--and whether, like the legendary Japanese pilots who ultimately met their ends in fiery deaths, he will eventually cause his own political suicide.
Much of the reaction Wednesday to Kim's moves was scathing.
As the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions staged a one-day strike to protest the government's refusal to repeal the labor law before debating it again, and all parties regrouped for the next round of maneuvers, many analysts said the president had been badly bruised, perhaps crippled, by this crisis.
Some predicted that he will lose influence within his party, limp through the rest of his term as a lame duck and leave a legacy as an ineffective executive and a "civilian dictator" as autocratic as the military rulers he succeeded.
"In the first part of his term, President Kim carried out historic reform measures," said Choi Jang Jip, a Korea University political science professor. "But his use of presidential power and authority has become increasingly authoritarian and arbitrary."
Even some of Kim's own New Korea Party members could barely contain their displeasure at their leader's handling of the labor crisis.
The crisis--sparked Dec. 26 after the ruling party rammed through revisions of the labor and national security laws in a semi-secret parliamentary session--provoked strikes that have cost the economy more than $3 billion and caused party support ratings to plunge.
After several meetings Wednesday, the consensus among the New Korea Party's rank and file is that "the party should improve its democratic decision-making process and be more independent" from Kim, ruling party legislator Suh Sang Mok said tersely.
But Kim's supporters painted a different picture of their president.
"Many South Koreans might have passed a rash judgment that President Kim has hopelessly reverted to the old authoritarian attitudes, but that is not true," a South Korean official said. "He is very much aware of public opinion, and he knows how to compromise in the interest of the nation. To err is human, but President Kim was very quick to seek a remedy."
The official also said Kim's decisive action to seek settlement of the labor strife, which caught his own advisors by surprise, demonstrated that he is no lame duck and retains firm control of state affairs.
Now Kim has tackled another unenviable, difficult task--reforming South Korea's antiquated, inflexible labor system, which sharply restricts layoffs, flexible schedules and other techniques commonly used in other industrial nations to keep pace with blindingly quick technological changes and harsh global competition.
But such controversial measures, striking at the heart of this society's entrenched status quo, could never have succeeded without Kim's bold, even imperious, moves, hatched with little debate or consultation, said Hahm Chaibong, a Yonsei University political science professor. He claimed that most Koreans understand this in their hearts.
If so, they are not particularly forgiving.
According to the Weekly Chosun magazine, Kim's support has plunged steadily to 13.9% as of Jan. 16, compared with 88.3% in May 1993, just after his inauguration. More than half of the respondents rated his performance worse than that of the previous military regimes.
Critics--such as Ra Jong Yil, a Kyung Hee University professor and opposition party advisor--said most of Kim's reforms are tainted by the perception that they were primarily politically motivated.
The corruption purges, for example, were targeted at his political enemies, he noted. The labor and national security law revisions were aimed at weakening his political opponents in this presidential election year, he and others claimed.
And others faulted Kim for relying more on showmanship than substance--unveiling flashy moves that do not solve the problems at hand.
For all his talk of "globalization," Kim deserves only a "C to D" grade for managing the faltering economy, said Lee Han Koo, president of Daewoo Economic Research Institute. Stock prices have barely risen in the last four years, while the currency has weakened and trade deficits have grown.
But weak economic performance, supporters said, is precisely why Kim has pushed to revise the labor law. And when the dust settles, it will stand as yet another difficult reform in perhaps the most challenging presidential agenda since President Park Chung Hee began transforming South Korea in the 1960s from an impoverished farming nation to today's industrial powerhouse, they argued. "In order to bring in real democracy, he had to take very strong measures," Hahm said. "But he has given Koreans a chance to see what democracy means."