Sympathizer compares Kim Dae Jung, Mandela But Korean-Americans seem to reflect divided opinion of South Koreans

December 19, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Byung Joon Chun, 69, spent almost all his life in Kwangju, South Korea -- hometown of Kim Dae Jung, the newly elected president of South Korea, and the scene of the notorious 1980 massacre by the military regime that Kim risked his life to oppose.

So when Chun, now living in Baltimore, heard about Kim's victory in the South Korean election yesterday, he was elated.

"I think Kim is like Mandela from Africa," Chun said through an interpreter. "The people respect him the same way in Kwangju. He's smart, and he has done so many things for Koreans; he's fought for the Koreans."

Like South Africa's President Nelson Mandela, Kim was a longtime political dissident who had been imprisoned and nearly paid with his life for his opposition.

The election has been a hot topic of conversation for the past few weeks among Chun and his friends during lunchtime at the Baltimore Metropolitan Korean Senior Center.

Yesterday, as news of the 73-year-old Kim's win spread, Korean-Americans in the Baltimore area reflected the deep divisions that Kim himself has inspired for decades in South Korea.

Among sympathizers like Chun, there was joy at the vindication of a man who had stood with South Korean students, intellectuals and the rural poor against a series of military regimes.

But among others there was nose-wrinkling skepticism about Kim's ability to lead the country out of its current economic crisis.

Yumi Choi, an Ellicott City flight attendant who emigrated from Seoul when she was 13, said she thought Kim's narrow margin of victory would present problems.

She said that during a weeklong trip to Seoul in October, she saw that few of her relatives and friends had any liking for Kim, who is regarded with deep suspicion by middle-class Koreans in major cities such as Seoul and Pusan.

"A lot of people there don't like him," Choi said, as she sat down for a pizza dinner with her mother at their family's Odenton liquor store. "That was the general feeling."

Choi also was put off by Kim's age.

"Definitely, I think he's too old for a president," Choi said. "It's time for a younger generation with more innovative ideas to take over."

Judy Lee, assistant director of the Korean Senior Center, said she also thinks Kim is too old for the job. But Lee, a Greenbelt resident, said she thinks Kim seems to want to foster good

relations between South Korea and other countries.

Chun, who immigrated to the United States 15 years ago, said he had confidence in Kim. He seemed inspired by Kim's RTC determination to become president -- which drove him to run four times.

"He tried his best and he didn't give up even though other politicians were discriminating against him because he's too old," Chun said.

"He's had a lot of hard times. But even though his age sounds old, Kim is a strong, healthy person," he said.

Sue Jin Hall, Choi's mother, was more turned off by the fact that Kim ran so often for the presidency and lost before finally squeaking through.

"If people really liked him, a long time ago he'd be president," said Hall, 57, who owns Tom's Liquors near Fort Meade. "I just hope he'll do a good job so everything in Korea will be good."

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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