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A Leader's Un-Sunny Side

Kim Dae Jung is praised abroad but disdained at home in South Korea.

February 21, 2003|Michael Breen | Michael Breen has worked in Seoul for 20 years as a journalist and a consultant. He is the author of "The Koreans" (St. Martin's Press, 1999) and is writing a biography of Kim Dae Jung.

Five years ago, South Koreans cautiously elected a lifelong dissident, Kim Dae Jung, in hopes he would save them from the near-bankruptcy brought on by the Asian financial crisis. Within a few months, his approval rating soared to 90%. Two years later, he went on to become the first Korean to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

As he prepares to leave office next week, the economy is booming again. But Kim's reputation is in shreds and his "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea is unpopular. He also faces the possibility of a trial over allegations that he bribed the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, to hold their historic summit in 2000.

Previous South Korean presidents have fallen victim to the same pattern of over- expectation and fall. But Kim Dae Jung's tumble from grace is especially puzzling to outsiders, given his status as the hero of Korean democracy.

Consider, first, the scale of Kim's successes. South Korea was the first country to recover from the Asian economic crisis, and under his watch it has become the world's most wired nation. On the social front, women's rights and consumer and environmental activism have made gains.

His biggest contribution, and the reason for the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize, is his "sunshine policy." The tangible benefits have been many -- a historic summit, joint sports teams, family reunions, economic cooperation and the opening this month of the first overland route for tourists from the South to the North -- but the intangible effect on South Koreans has been equally tremendous.

South Koreans' fear and loathing of the North, fed by memories of the 1950-53 Korean War, have been replaced by hopes for reconciliation. The policy has also made them deeply aware of what has been obvious to outsiders -- that the North is a massive failure and that an eventual unified Korea will be an expanded version of what they, the southerners, have built.

But despite these successes, it is Kim's failures that now preoccupy South Koreans. They insist that the economic reforms have become bogged down and that there have been mistakes in health care and education reform. The sunshine policy is under assault. The North's rejuvenated nuclear weapons program and those allegations of a multimillion-dollar payoff to Kim Jong Il make the engagement idea seem like a gross miscalculation.

All this feeds into visceral dislike of the retiring president that is difficult to fathom. "You foreigners don't understand," one South Korean journalist told me. "He's a liar. He lied about his family, his age, his political activity as a young man, and has been lying ever since."

Let's look at this. Kim has been coy about the fact that his mother was a poor, young widow and became a concubine. And, yes, he is 79, two years older than his official age. He or his mother permanently falsified his records before his 20th birthday, most likely so he could avoid Japanese military service. Korea was occupied by Japan then. As a young man, Kim joined an underground communist group.

The long battle against dictators, which made Kim internationally famous, fails to impress his countrymen. In part this is because not all Koreans were opposed to the authoritarian leaders; they had, after all, wrought the economic miracle. Many, in fact, saw dissidents such as Kim as subversives. But even the early pro-democracy people saw Kim as just one of several faction leaders.

What seems to lie at the root of the current dislike of Kim is that he failed to rise above the authoritarian political culture that South Koreans of his generation share. As a democratic dissident, he survived a kidnapping, two assassination attempts, years of prison and house arrest, a death sentence and exile. But surviving in opposition under dictatorship required a combination of undemocratic skills, a ruthless pursuit of power, secretiveness and the ability to solicit money under the table.

That Kim carried these habits into the presidential Blue House became evident: One aide after another was involved in scandal; he appeared to threaten the media through tax audits; two of his sons were arrested on corruption charges. And finally, the alleged bribing of North Korea suggests to the people that this man whom the foreigners see as a great saint of democracy is no better than they are. They expected more. But they expected too much.

How history will view Kim Dae Jung depends to a considerable extent on his North Korean counterpart. If Kim Jong Il is blasted out of power as a Korean Hitler, Kim Dae Jung risks being seen as a Neville Chamberlain, his engagement policy an ill-timed appeasement. However, if Seoul's assumptions about the communist leader's solid power base prove true and the North pulls out of its morass, Kim Dae Jung could be a Richard Nixon. It was Nixon's historic trip to Beijing that sparked a new era in U.S.-Sino relations.

The eventual reconciliation and development of the Koreas then would be traced back to Kim Dae Jung's 2000 visit to the enemy capital. And that would be fitting.

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