President Kim: Requiem for a Hero

His coalition is in disarray as his presidency nears an end

He started his administration in the depths of the Asian crisis, with the desperate hopes of an entire country behind him. But South Korea's Kim Dae Jung has now entered the final period of his presidency, and it is a bitter moment for the Nobel peace prize winner.

Kim's popularity, once nearly universal among South Koreans, has slid below 30%. The latest blow came on Sept. 3 when the Korean National Assembly passed a rare no-confidence vote in Kim's Unification Minister, Lim Dong Won, who handles North Korean affairs. Lim had approved trips to Pyongyang by South Korea's left-leaning activists, some of whom attended rallies glorifying the North's Stalinist leaders.

FED UP. Kim's latest humiliation is part of the intricate dance South Korea's politicians have started in the runup to elections in December, 2002. The opposition wants to corner Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) and make sure it stands no chance of holding on to the presidency. So the Grand National Party (GNP), which has battled Kim for years, called for the no-confidence vote--and surprisingly, won backing from Kim's coalition partner, the United Liberal Democrats (ULD). Its ultraconservative supporters are fed up with Kim's soft policy toward the North.

Now, Kim's coalition is in disarray. And polls show that some two-third of voters are dissatisfied with his administration's performance. This discontent sets the stage for the probable election of Lee Hoi Chang, 66, head of the GNP. Lee, a Supreme Court justice before he turned to politics in the early 1990s, has none of Kim Dae Jung's charisma. But he has the unified support of his party, which ran South Korea before Kim's election. What's more, he has the backing of the chaebol, the giant conglomerates that clashed so often with Kim and his Cabinet ministers.

Lee's presidency would result in some sharp policy departures from the Kim regime. For starters, the GNP would be more lenient than Kim in its dealings with the chaebol, which traditionally had a major voice in the running of the country and which relied on government-controlled banks for billions in cheap credits. While the chaebol are unlikely to recover all of their former clout, they probably won't have to worry that the new administration will impose sharp limitations on borrowing or investment, as Kim did with the top 30 chaebol. "We'll lift as many restrictions as possible to create a free business environment," says Yim Tae Hee, the GNP's chief economic policy adviser.

WAITING. Lee also promises to be a lot tougher on North Korea than Kim, who has tried to reach a rapprochement with Kim Jong Il, North Korea's enigmatic tyrant. "The Kim Dae Jung government has been excessively trying to suit the North's taste," says Choi Yeon Hee, a top GNP policymaker. "The GNP will stress reciprocity. The South's aid will be granted only when the North implements its pledged steps." This hard-line stance on North Korea will doubtless please the Bush Administration in Washington.

Kim Dae Jung still has more than a year to resurrect his party's fortunes. But so far, he has failed to groom a successor. "His administration has been a one-man show, with Kim calling all the shots," says a Western diplomat in Seoul. Kim's aides have discouraged the President from naming his preferred successor for fear he will turn himself into a lame duck.

Now, several potential MDP candidates are vying to replace Kim. The most popular is Rhee In Je, the former governor of Kyonggi Province, surrounding Seoul. Rhee, 52, is calling for a new generation of politicians to be given an opportunity to lead the country. A lawyer and a judge before turning to politics in 1987, Rhee is currently lagging Lee in the polls.

Unless Lee makes a major gaffe, the President's best hope for bolstering the MDP's chances may be to find a surprise candidate who can reverse his party's popularity plunge. Few analysts think Kim is capable of pulling that off. At this point, he looks like the man who saved Korea from crisis but who cannot save his party from defeat.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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