Korea of the One Kim

December 22, 1992

For so many years, South Korea was the land of the "two Kims" -- Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam. They dominated the politics of their country so completely they overshadowed the military dictatorships both opposed with courage, tenacity and mutual rivalry until Korean-style democracy at last prevailed. Now South Korea is the land of the "One Kim." Kim Young Sam has been elected president, the first civilian to win the Blue House in 31 years, and both the generals and Kim Dae Jung have accepted the result gracefully.

For Americans, especially those who fought to defend South Korea from the Communist North four decades ago, this is a gratifying result. The country they kept free has experienced the rise of a middle class -- prosperous, educated and politically aware -- that put an end to military dictatorship five years ago and now has put a civilian in office.

As the incoming president, Kim Young Sam will still have to deal with North Korea. On the surface, all the advantages would seem to lie with the South. Its economy towers over the backward North. Its chief sponsor, the United States, is the sole world superpower while the North's chief sponsor, the Soviet Union, has collapsed, its ideology in repute.

Yet South Korea cannot count on a repetition of the German experience. It cannot assume that the Pyongyang regime will suddenly fall, as did East Germany's, and the two parts of the nation will be unified in a twinkling.

However, some form of reconciliation if not reunification seems bound to take the place of the division that exists today. And it may be Kim Young Sam's destiny to move it along, perhaps in a way that relieves the world of a nuclear flash point. He is a shrewd and prescient leader, one who rightly predicted the fall of the generals in his own land and then had the political smarts to co-opt them in his lifelong drive for the presidency.

For Bill Clinton, the results of the Korean election must be welcome. Kim Young Sam may never have had a network of American liberals to promote his cause, as did Kim Dae Jung. But he has been realistically friendly to the United States for many years, even seeing long before Washington did that military repression in Seoul played right into the hands of Communists and leftist agitators.

The new brand of democracy in South Korea may have more in common with the one-party democracy of Japan and Singapore than with the U.S. Nevertheless, it is a great step forward.

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