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How Will South Koreans View Kim Dae-jung's Legacy? - 2002-07-18


South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung is in the final seven months of his presidential term and by law, cannot run for a second term. Mr. Kim has been blindsided by a progressively hostile North Korea and financial scandals within his family, problems that have left his legacy in tatters.

South Korea's 77-year-old president, Kim Dae-jung, faces a crucial challenge during his final months in office: He needs to reverse his own plunging popularity ratings.

If Mr. Kim does not, analysts said, it is likely that the opposition Grand National Party candidate, Lee Hoi-chang, will win the December election and scrap Mr. Kim's policy of engaging the communist North.

Mr. Kim is rallying behind Rho Moo-hyun, the candidate for his Millennium Democratic Party. And at the same time, he is battling to save his own legacy and political policies.

Lim Seong-ho is a politics professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. He says recent corruption scandals enveloping Mr. Kim's family have outraged the public. Two of his sons were recently indicted on charges of taking millions of dollars in bribes. Kim Hong-gul is currently on trial and Kim Hong-up goes on trial August 2.

"In a Confucian society, people tend to identify public issues with politicians' private lives. So, we cannot draw a clear dividing line between public realms and family issues. That is the reason why President Kim's sons' problems have critically damaged the president's popularity," he said.

Mr. Kim has had some notable successes since he took office in 1998.

Domestically, he scored a victory that shows no signs of fading, successfully reviving South Korea's economy, after it was battered during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and '98. Economic growth is forecast to top six percent this year, making it one of the world's most vibrant economies.

Perhaps the highpoint came when President Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago for arranging a summit with North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il. Their two nations have been frozen in an armed truce since 1953, when the Korean War ended without a peace treaty.

The two leaders met in Pyongyang in June 2000 and agreed to pursue peace on the Korean Peninsula. While the rival states held a series of reunions bringing together families divided by the border, North Korea has not lived up to many other aspects of the accord.

Professor Lim of Kyung Hee University says a deadly naval clash between the two Koreas on June 29 was a major setback for the president and his policy of engaging the North. The skirmish, in which sailors from both sides were killed, outraged the South Korean public. He said the people's fury is a major obstacle to the so-called "Sunshine Policy," which Mr. Kim continues to push.

"About two or three years ago, Kim Dae-jung was highly respected as a peacemaker. But at the moment, his sunshine policy is no longer supported by the Korean people. In general, people say that they support the idea of helping North Korea, but in a real sense, Korean people do not seem enthusiastic about the particular sunshine policy that President Kim has pursued," Professor Lim said.

Some South Korean newspaper editorials have warned that if the conservative opposition candidate wins the election, Seoul's policy toward the isolationist North could take a harder line and build on existing tensions.

Lee Nae-young is a politics professor at Korea University. He said there is a need for continuing engagement and praises President Kim for maintaining the policy, despite pressure to abandon it.

"There is not much alternative besides the sunshine policy. Maybe the Grand National Party will be slower and more prudent in approaching the North. But, anyway, in terms of maintaining dialogue and compromise, there is not much of an option besides this for the opposition party," Mr. Lee said.

A by-election on August 8 to fill 13 parliamentary seats is likely to indicate whether Mr. Kim and his party can surmount the pressures of corruption scandals and a hostile North to recapture public support. However, things look bleak for the ruling party. Mr. Kim's party was soundly beaten in last month's elections for provincial governors and city mayors.

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