Seoul — After months of dancing around the subject, South Korean opposition leader Kim Dae Jung is now openly determined to be president. The man who was the opposition candidate in South Korea's last direct election for the presidency in 1971 says he will formally declare at the end of this month.
In an interview here, the charismatic dissident defended his decision to run alongside rival opposition figure Kim Young Sam. Both men had promised not to split the opposition's ranks in the contest against ruling party candidate Roh Tae Woo. Kim Young Sam made his candidacy official last weekend, after talks between the two men aimed to settle the question had come to naught.
The division, many Koreans fear, could endanger the process of democratization. The December election could yield a weak opposition government voted in with only minority support. Even worse, though many doubt this will happen, it could allow a widely disliked ruling party to eke out a minority victory.
Kim Dae Jung offers a depiction of himself as a captive of his supporters.
``I had planned to concede to Kim Young Sam this time,'' he claims. Instead, the enthusiasm of the mass crowds which have turned out to greet his first public appearances in 16 years ``forced'' him to run. ``As a politician, how can [I] disregard such a demand.''
Kim Dae Jung professes not to be concerned about the prospect of a Roh victory. Even in a 4-way race - the two opposition Kims, Mr. Roh and former Premier Kim Jong Pil - he believes he could capture a majority of the vote. Many analysts do not share his optimism.
At the same time, Kim carefully leaves the door open to the possibility of dropping out of the race at the last minute. ``We don't know how the election situation will develop,'' argues Kim Dae Jung. ``We have 60 days. At the final stage, if it is really necessary, one of us can drop [out] to prevent Roh Tae Woo's election.''
His ambiguous phrasing leaves open which of the two Kims, as they are often called, will withdraw. But he clearly believes that it will be his rival.
He referred to the precedent of the 1963 election when there were also two opposition candidates against General Park Chung Hee. At that time, one man, Yun Po Sun, drew massive crowds, leading his rival to yield.
``Our people, through the development of the electoral process,'' predicts Kim, ``will decide to support one of us and they'll force one of us to drop [out].''
Kim Young Sam has been openly critical of his sometime ally against the government. Appealing to the middle class, he advertises himself as a stable alternative to Kim Dae Jung. The veteran politician echos the ruling party characterization of Kim Dae Jung as a relative radical.
In calculated contrast, Kim Dae Jung is more gracious in his comments about his fellow opposition leader. ``I think Kim Young Sam is a well qualified man to stand for president.'' He faults him only for an earlier statement disqualifying Kim Dae Jung's candidacy on the grounds that the military would oppose it.
Given Korea's history of rule by ex-generals of military-backed authoritarian regimes since 1961, he insists, ``Democracy is the realization of military neutrality.'' Taking this logic one step further, Kim Dae Jung argues that only his candidacy will ``really put an end to military government.''
So far the two men have not yet taken the step of actually splitting the opposition Reunification Democratic Party. However Kim Young Sam threatens to hold a party convention at the end of the month to put a party seal on his candidacy. Kim Dae Jung suggests that the two men run for now without party label.
At this point the two men are only united in their continued attacks on the regime of Chun Doo Hwan. Both accuse the government of failing to carry out all of their promises for reform, including the release of political prisoners.
The sharpest theme of attack is that the government is preparing the ground for election fraud by utilizing the power of government machinery. During the recent holiday, Kim Dae Jung charges, local officials were handing out gifts to the population. The ruling party will use its control of the media - particularly the semi-official television networks, both Kims say - to its advantage.
Ruling Democratic Justic party official Hyun Hong Choo denied the accusations, promising that ``we'll have a fair, open election.'' But Mr. Hyun rejected opposition proposals for outside monitoring of the election similar to that used in the Philippines. He also ruled out the need for a foreign observer mission - though journalists and others will be free to watch - as an unwelcome intervention into Korean internal affairs.