Kim Dae Jung: The Halo Slips

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Last fall three religious leaders close to Kim Dae Jung visited him at the presidential Blue House. It should have been a festive occasion. The South Korean President had just won the Nobel Peace Prize, and his push to pry open Communist North Korea seemed to be working. In a private session, the visitors warned Kim that Koreans were deeply divided over his policy of rapprochement with North Korea. Sit down with the opposition leaders, they urged, and forge a national consensus on how to deal with Pyongyang. Above all, step back from the day-to-day fray of party politics and be more presidential. Says Park Jong Wha, a Presbyterian church leader: "I told him, You are the Nobel prizewinner. You should focus on becoming an elder statesman. You should be like South Africa's Nelson Mandela."

Kim should have listened. Last week his ruling coalition imploded with the bolting of Kim Jong Pil, the junior coalition partner and head of the United Liberal Democrats, over disagreements on dealing with the North. It was just the latest blow to a faltering presidency, one whose fate interests more than Koreans. Nobody has done more to bring North Korea in from the cold. But Kim's attempts to improve relations with Pyongyang have been stalled for months, an impasse that concerns Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow. The Korean economy is faltering. GDP growth is expected to fall by more than half this year, to 4%, the rock bottom by Korean standards, and Korea's exports are slowing fast. For the 15 months left in his term, Kim will probably be a lame duck.

The swooning world economy has not helped. Neither has the U.S. President. Bush was skeptical about Kim's policy of reconciliation with the North when the South Korean leader visited Washington earlier this year. But many Koreans think Kim has brought his troubles on himself. Traits that helped him survive when he was fighting Korea's military governments--unshakable self- confidence, an unwillingness to compromise--have turned into liabilities. Even supporters say his authoritarian style has contributed to his problems. Kim did not try hard enough to sell his North Korea policy and never sat down with Lee Hoi Chang, the leader of the main opposition party.

When Kim became President in 1998, expectations were high. As Korea's best-known pro-democracy activist, he had been jailed, beaten and nearly executed by Korea's military strongmen. After finally making it to the Blue House, he wasted no time in launching a peace offensive and flying to Pyongyang in June 2000 for a historic summit. At the awards ceremony in Oslo last October, the chairman of the Nobel committee compared Kim to Mandela and Gandhi.

But for Koreans, Kim's halo slipped long ago. The noble dissident has morphed into a backroom political operator. Supporters had hoped Kim would try to fix Korea's political culture and build stronger democratic institutions. He has not done so. Says Lim Sung Ho, an expert on legislative politics at Kyunghee University in Seoul: "Kim has a knack for fighting. But fighting is different from leading." That leadership deficit has been most apparent when it comes to North Korea. As the South Korean economy cratered, the one-way flow of money and aid to a seemingly ungrateful North Korea started to irritate people. Pyongyang apparently thought it was not getting enough and pressured Kim for more. But last week North Korea made a surprise offer to restart talks. That might mean one more chance to end a half-century of hostility on the peninsula--and for Kim to live up to the reputation with which he assumed the presidency.