South Korean President Kim Dae-jung stepped down from his ruling party Monday and apologized to the South Korean public for an influence-peddling scandal swirling around his sons. The reputation of the 77-year-old leader may be tarnished, but he can nevertheless claim credit for a long list of accomplishments.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung said recently he and his wife are in agony over the corruption allegations that led to his resignation from South Korea's governing Millennium Democratic Party which he founded.
According to local media, Seoul prosecutors confirmed Wednesday that a businessman and former aide at the center of a highly-publicized bribery scandal gave more than $230,000 to President Kim Dae-jung's youngest son, Kim Hong-gul, who is now in the United States. The funds were allegedly payments for steering lucrative deals to the businessman's clients.
His other sons, Kim Hong-up and Kim Hong-il, have also been implicated in a graft case, and political analysts say one of the three is likely to end up in prison. Mr. Kim himself has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has distanced himself from the prosecutors in charge of the probes.
But the scandal is casting a long shadow over the leader, who is in the final months of his five-year presidential term. The country's constitution forbids presidents from seeking re-election, but Mr. Kim is said to be concerned that his sons' problems could have a negative impact on party's image and erode its 20 percentage-point lead in the most recent opinion polls.
Millennium Democratic Party officials have said that they hope Mr. Kim's apology would remove the scandal issue from the political arena until official investigations are completed. But the opposition Grand National Party has rallied supporters in front of parliament to demand televised hearings conducted by a special independent investigator.
Robert Broadfoot is an analyst with the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong. He points out that Mr. Kim's predecessor, Kim Young-sam, faced similar woes. Eventually, his son was imprisoned for intervening in government affairs.
"I think the issue, the way his sons are being attacked, has less to do with him personally than with Korea's system. Korea has not had a leader in its modern history who has not at the time of leaving office either come under attack personally or had his family come under attack for various aspects of corruption. This makes transitions in Korea difficult," Mr. Broadfoot said.
The highly public ordeal has hurt the president's already low public approval ratings, which now stand at about 25 percent. But Kim Dae-jung is a survivor who has weathered many battles.
A former dissident, he survived numerous assassination attempts, jail terms and even the death sentence to attain his nation's highest post.
He took office in early 1998, when the country was in the depth of a crippling financial crisis. While many Korean voters say that Mr. Kim has not done enough to revive the economy and privatize inefficient state-run companies, Mr. Broadfoot said that internationally he has received wide acclaim.
"Our report card for the Korean economy is excellent. You have got to rate the best of all the countries that where hit by 1997 crisis. And Kim Dae-jung deserves a lot of credits. He did not do it single handedly, but he did help lead the action that has enabled Korea to recover its banking system. He has dealt with corporate problems more effectively than other countries," Mr. Broadfoot said.
Robert Ward, a Northeast Asia analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, agrees. "In economic reform terms, he used the IMF financial crisis to push through a lot of unpopular measures to improve transparency in terms of bank lending and corporate accounting and broke up some of the chaebols, and the economic landscape is very different now than what it was in 1997, and that is due to a large extent to his economic reforms," he said.
In addition, Mr. Kim is likely to be remembered for the historic summit he held with the leader of communist North Korea, Kim Jong-il in June of 2000 in Pyongyang. The two nations have remained technically at war since 1953, when the Korean War ended without a peace treaty and the meeting is considered an important breakthrough. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching out to his country's cold war enemy and was hailed as a visionary by President Bush.
But Mr. Ward of the EIU notes that, since then, the push towards peace on the Korean Peninsula has slowed dramatically.
"Clearly it was a triumph for him at the time but events have slightly tarnished that as well. He has not got the concessions from North Korea that he wanted. But the fact that Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il were able to meet at all is a tribute to Mr. Kim's own political vision at the time, though the momentum has not been followed up since," Mr. Ward said.
Kim Dae-jung may not be riding the crest of popularity at home these days. But in the eyes of the international community, he has compiled a record of solid accomplishment for South Korea.