South Korea's fresh start Kim Dae Jung: Old dissident charts political and economic reform, national unity.

March 02, 1998

THE INAUGURATION of Kim Dae Jung as president of South Korea is the most exciting democratic transition since Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president of South Africa in 1994. The two have much in common, not least the almost impossibly high expectations greeting them.

Each was a lifelong crusader against tyranny who spent time in prison. Mr. Kim still limps from a botched government-ordered assassination attempt. Each came to power from the opposition in a democratic election, long past retirement age. Mr. Kim is 74, a year younger than Mr. Mandela was in 1994. The challenges facing Mr. Kim are on a magnitude of the tasks of forging national unity and reconciliation that seized Mr. Mandela.

In his inauguration speech, Mr. Kim pledged to make Korean democracy more participatory. At his urging, his predecessor Kim Young Sam pardoned the imprisoned former dictators, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, who attended the ceremony. In coming peacefully to terms with South Korea's past, the new president sends a signal to North Korea as well.

The most urgent challenge is the shattered economy, for which none of his experiences prepared Mr. Kim. He can only promise his people a loss of jobs and incomes in the bailout. He wants to pare the power of the "chaebols," the family owned conglomerates whose corrupt relations with government and banking brought the country close to ruin. But this is intended to liberate private business, not cripple it.

The most important challenge is to end the tensions on the Korean peninsula and abolish the half-century war with North Korea. He offered reconciliation and cooperation between states and swore off any attempt to absorb North Korea, even suggesting a summit meeting with the north's mysterious dictator, Kim Jong Il. Initially, he wants families separated by the border to be able to locate each other.

Kim Dae Jung is past ambition for further office after one five-year term. For a politician who only narrowly won election last December, he begins with broad support for his lofty goals. His initial actions give hope for economic recovery in South Korea and reconciliation with North Korea. But the honeymoon could be short without progress on all fronts. Such are the expectations he carries.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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