Two years into the presidency of reformist Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's economy is back from the brink. But as the country prepares for legislative elections on April 13, it feels like business as usual: corruption-tainted candidates, rampant vote-buying, factional feuding. Although Kim is not on the ballot, the election is in many ways a referendum on his rule. In a candid interview with TIME Asia's Adi Ignatius, Donald Macintyre and Stella Kim at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Kim acknowledges the "pain" that economic reforms have caused some Koreans, and reveals tentative plans to propose a summit meeting with North Korea.
TIME: Korea may be the most wired country in Asia. How did that happen, and what are the implications?
Kim: There are 10 million Internet users in the country, a number we expect to double this year. By the end of my term, perhaps the entire population--except the very young and the very old--will be online. In a speech here, Jack Welch of General Electric said that South Koreans have an adventurous spirit. I think he's right. People are fascinated by the Internet. At my inauguration two years ago, I spoke about the Information Age and the Internet, but I was quite unfamiliar with the terms. They have since become household words.
TIME: How wired are you?
Kim: To be frank, I'm not that good with the Internet, even though I emphasize its importance. I try my best to learn, but I have very little time for it. Sometimes I ask my secretary for help.
TIME: Do you surf the Net?
Kim: I have done so a few times. My initial impression is how aged I am and how difficult it will be to master this.
TIME: In the election, why did you support the civic coalition that drew up a blacklist of politicians?
Kim: I respect the viewpoint of these groups. In every democracy, citizens have the right to air their opinions. The civic movement has such a strong voice because politicians have totally failed in reforming the political sector.
TIME: But your party had 12 blacklisted candidates on its endorsement list.
Kim: These people either scored well in public-opinion polls, contributed much to the party's activity in the National Assembly or were rated by other civic groups as outstanding.
TIME: To what extent is this election a referendum on your reform policies?
Kim: As in any election, this will be an evaluation by the people on the achievements of the ruling camp and the deeds of the opposition. To that extent, it will be an evaluation of my reform policies.
TIME: You generally get credit for transforming the economy, but not for political reform. Why is that?
Kim: It's true that reforms in the political sector have been lacking. Without a majority in the legislature, the ruling camp has not been all that successful in terms of parliamentary reform. But people are now guaranteed the rights they deserve in a democracy. Demonstrations take place, and they're now free of tear gas and Molotov cocktails. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a minority union, and the teachers' union, which were banned in the past, are now legal. Unions have formed their own political party. Civic movements have taken on a level of energy you cannot find in other countries.
TIME: North Korea has lately become very active diplomatically. Is there any chance Pyongyang will accept your proposal for talks?
Kim: In the end, North Korea will accept our offer, for two reasons. First, it now understands that we are very sincere in our intentions about wanting to live in peace and cooperation. Second, North Korea cannot go on the way it has. It needs a significant amount of economic help. Without improvement in South-North cooperation, such aid will not be available. North Korea has come to realize that it has to work with South Korea.
TIME: When will unification come?
Kim: The maturing of the situation is for dialogue and peaceful coexistence, not necessarily for unification. At this point we still do not have the resources to take care of North Korea. In Germany, there was much psychological suffering after unification. And the situation there before unification was better than ours.
TIME: Why haven't you spoken out more on human rights in North Korea? Is it difficult to stay silent?
Kim: As a political leader, I have to be pragmatic. I'm deeply concerned about the human rights situation. Open criticism of human rights in North Korea is a task for the press and civic groups. Our government has to deal with the regime, and we have to carry out a policy aimed at inducing openness and reform. We continue to work quietly in an unofficial way with people who flee the regime, with the escapees in northeastern China. Since my inauguration, we have been able--by working with third parties--to safely bring to this country about 250 such people. If we did this loudly, it would cause friction.
TIME: Is this the time to propose a goodwill visit to North Korea?
Kim: Yes. After the election, I may consider proposing a South-North summit. But this would have to have the strong support of the people.
TIME: You remain popular overseas, but you have many critics at home. How do explain the perception gap?
Kim: I think all leaders face that problem. Support for my economic reforms is strong. But of course there is criticism, given the difficulty we face without a majority in the National Assembly and given the pain that economic reforms have caused for many sectors of the population. The true evaluation of a political leader comes only after you leave office. I'll do my best during my remaining three years.
TIME: Your critics say foreign investors are taking control of the country.
Kim: If the opposition really believes that, it is way behind the times. I hope foreigners are not deterred by these nonsensical arguments. It's ridiculous to say investors are trying to colonize the world. The Queen of England and the President of France have welcomed Korean investments. Would they do so if such investments were an attempt to colonize their countries
TIME: So you're willing to say, on the record, that Korea does not plan to colonize Britain and France?
Kim: [Laughs] If I answer that seriously, people will say I'm unfit to be President.