The life of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung reads like a John Le Carre novel. He narrowly escaped death several times, and he spent six years in prison and 10 more either under house arrest or in exile. A devout Roman Catholic, Kim believes he is destined to struggle with adversity. And his greatest challenge of all will be in pulling Korea out of its worst economic crisis since the 1950-53 Korean War. "I have coped with crisis all my life," says the 76-year-old President, who is inevitably compared to Nelson Mandela of South Africa. "Of course, we have a lot of difficulties. But I am confident that as long as we take the right path, we can succeed."
Stabilizing Korea's economy could begin to restore some of Asia's lost confidence. In fewer than four months in office, Kim has made a good start. He has presented a blueprint for cleaning up a financial sector riddled with $85 billion in problem loans and--using threats and sweet talk--won agreement from the heads of top chaebol to drop unprofitable and inefficient businesses. He also has made it easier for capital to flow in and out of the country, given the central bank more independence in monetary policy, required transparency in business transactions, allowed hostile foreign takeovers, and lifted most restrictions on foreign ownership of Korean bonds, shares, and land.
But Kim has much further to go just to implement his own plans, much less press for more sorely needed reforms. Although few question his determination, he faces resistance from trade unions, conglomerates, and even policy advisers, many of whom lent their knowledge to the former military regimes to set up the previous government-directed economy. The opposition will only increase as corporate bankruptcies soar and unemployment hits record highs. Meanwhile, the falling Japanese yen is putting renewed pressure on the Korean economy and could undermine a bank bailout plan that was pieced together earlier this year.
The President, however, is not one to give up easily. Before he finally became head of state on Feb. 25, he risked everything, including his life, in previous tries for the office. Kim ran against former General Park Chung Hee in 1971 and, despite a government propaganda campaign aimed at destroying him, wound up with a surprising 45% of the vote. One month after the election, Kim's car was slammed by a truck that later was found to be linked to a government official. The accident left him with a permanent limp and chronic neuralgia. Two years later, South Korean intelligence agents kidnapped Kim. They were about to drown him in the Sea of Japan when U.S. helicopters intervened.
Kim also was one of three hopefuls in an election planned for 1980 after Park was assassinated the previous year. But then-General Chun Doo Hwan scuttled the election by staging a coup and arresting Kim and other politicians. Although Kim was in jail, Chun accused him of masterminding a civil rebellion in the southwestern city of Kwangju in 1980 and sentenced him to death. His life was saved again in a deal with the U.S. government that allowed Chun to visit Washington.
OPENING DOORS. Just as he was rescued by contact with the outside world, Kim believes Korea can be saved by throwing open its financial system to foreigners. Long a culture closed to outsiders, Korean society still perceives foreign ownership of local companies and real estate as colonialism that threatens the country. To counter this kind of thinking, the President sponsored a nationally televised dialogue with people on the street--and according to opinion polls, he is convincing a growing number of Koreans that a U.S. or European company in Korea contributes more to the economy than a Korean business operating abroad. "To rescue our country from the current economic crisis, we must attract foreign businesses," says Kim. "If we had practiced democracy and the free-market system, we wouldn't have had a command-and-control economy or this economic ordeal."
With Korea at a crossroads, Kim is trying to prove wrong the claims by some Asian leaders that Western-style democracy isn't compatible with Asia's Tiger economies. If his strategies bear fruit, he could go down in history as the most successful leader of modern Korea.