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Kim Dae-jung Term Marked by Powerful Triumphs, Bitter Disappointment - 2003-02-23

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung steps down Tuesday after a five-year term in which he experienced powerful triumphs as well as bitter disappointments. Mr. Kim is credited for bringing the country back from the brink of an economic crisis, but leaves office with his Nobel-winning policy of engaging North Korea in serious question and shadowed by corruption scandals.

Veteran dissident Kim Dae-jung was elected South Korea's president in December 1997 - promising to end corruption, revive the economy and open a dialogue with communist North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Political Analyst Robert Broadfoot, of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong, says Mr. Kim's most notable achievement is in the economic sphere. "I think history will view him as being the person that turned South Korea around in 1997-1998. His first three years in office he was a reformer and was quite effective. His last years in office he has been increasingly a lame duck, however," he says.

His administration saved the country from the brink of economic collapse during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Since then, the government boosted South Korea's foreign currency reserves from just $4 billion dollars to more than $120 billion dollars at the end of last year, the fourth largest reserve in the world.

The out-going president also pursued reform in the corporate, financial, public and labor sectors. He sought to rein in the enormous power of family-run conglomerates called chaebols, curb related corruption and began privatizing many state-run firms.

President Kim is also credited with making South Korea a leading information technology powerhouse as one of the world's most wired nations. The local IT industry accounted for more than 15 percent of South Korea's gross domestic product in 2001, up from seven-percent in the year he took office.

But then, Mr. Broadfoot explains, the president's focus changed. He and other analysts agree Mr. Kim left many of his economic reform projects unfinished as he shifted attention to improving relations with the South's archrival and neighbor to the North. "The mandate he was elected on, he carried out admirably and he turned South Korea around better than any economy from that crisis. Then he went on to the North Korean issue and that became his new priority and I think that there were some false expectations there," he says. "I do not think it has been a 100-percent failure, but his critics will use it to attack him."

Mr. Kim's efforts toward reconciliation were capped when he secured the historic Pyongyang summit in June 2000 with Kim Jong Il, in which the two leaders agreed to a series of projects aimed at eventual reunification. It was a major factor in his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year.

The confidence-building joint projects, all of which are being financed by South Korea, are still underway, though prone to setbacks. The current international dispute over North Korea's illegal nuclear programs has cast a huge cloud over what exactly Mr. Kim's engagement policy has accomplished for the intensive diplomatic efforts and huge cash investment.

Analyst Henry Morris, of Industrial Research and Consulting in Seoul, says North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il appears more interested in establishing contacts with Washington than in cementing ties with Seoul. "It is not clear that this is going to be a long-term success. So far, he has had some dramatic initial success in that he was able to get the northern leader to agree to a summit meeting in Pyongyang a couple of years ago," he says. "But since then, although the Northern leader promised to visit Seoul, that has never happened and it does not seem likely in the near term anyway."

The North-South relationship is definitely caught in the international nuclear dispute and Pyongyang has not hesitated to declare it will attack the South - if threatened by the United States or other powers.

In the week leading to Mr. Kim leaving office, North Korea even threatened to quit the armistice - which ended Korean War fighting in 1953 without a peace treaty. President Kim's critics point to these moves as evidence his engagement approach has failed.

But that is not the only problem now casting shadows on Mr. Kim's legacy as the man to forge rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula. He now faces allegations his administration, in effect, bribed North Korea to hold the summit, by channeling hundreds of millions of dollars through the South Korean Hyundai company.

In a nationally-televised address this month, Mr. Kim apologized for the scandal though denied the bribery allegations. He did admit he had been briefed about the illegal fund transfer by Hyundai and allowed it because he believed it was in the national interest. He urged politicians to let the matter rest in the current tense atmosphere. But an investigation is underway.

Analyst Henry Morris says this will definitely be a black mark on Mr.Kim's presidential record. "I think they have put the [Kim] legacy in danger because the opposition does not want let go of it. They are like a dog with juicy bone, chewing it up," he says.

Yet another scandal has tainted Mr. Kim's twilight months in office. Late last year, two of his sons were found guilty of bribery and influence peddling. One went to prison and the other received a suspended sentence.

His successor, Roh Moo-hyun, has pledged to continue Mr. Kim's policies. If he is successful, history may judge the Kim presidency as one of the most pivotal.