Old rebel takes charge in Korea Kim Dae Jung: Dissident wins election to face economic crisis.

December 20, 1997

FOR VALIANT opposition to tyranny, Kim Dae Jung deserved to win election as president of South Korea. No one has earned it more than this doughty crusader for democracy. He is to his country what Vaclav Havel is to the Czech Republic, Lech Walesa is to Poland and Corazon Aquino is to the Philippines. They lived to become president of their countries and were disappointing in the role.

Mr. Kim, who is either 72 or 74, depending on whether you believe him or documents, retired from politics in 1992 after he lost the presidency for the third time. But he bounced back to repudiate President Kim Young Sam, who is completing a five-year term and ineligible to succeed himself.

For a moderately left-wing friend of organized labor and foe of the family-owned conglomerates that thrived under government protection to make South Korea the world's 11th biggest economy, Mr. Kim could not have won at a worse time.

The International Monetary Fund has offered a bailout of up to $60 billion for South Korea's sagging financial system. But that offer is good only if businesses are allowed to fail, insolvent banks are liquidated, public spending is brought down, unemployment is made to rise and foreign financial firms are allowed to operate freely, among other free-market reforms unpalatable to Mr. Kim.

The IMF made sure the terms of its bailout could not be an election issue by withholding aid until all major candidates agreed to them. Mr. Kim duly endorsed the reforms, then promised to renegotiate them, watched markets recoil in panic and committed himself anew to the reforms. In his hunger for victory, Mr. Kim even made a deal with right-wingers who had supported the former military dictatorship that had kidnapped, imprisoned and nearly executed him.

Since the Korean crisis is one of confidence, Mr. Kim's first challenge will be to reassure the foreign central bankers and investors made nervous by his victory. In his first statements yesterday, he did that, promising to abide by reforms, warning of hard times ahead.

Doubts about his fitness for the immediate tasks should not distract from satisfaction that South Korea has witnessed the first victory by an opposition candidate for president in its history. Kim Dae Jung deserves a chance to pull South Korea from the morass into which it descended under his rival, President Kim Young Sam.

That is what a slim but decisive plurality of South Korean voters thought, and their judgment is to be respected.

Pub Date: 12/20/97

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