SEOUL — HALF a century ago, when Korea was one entity, Kim Young Sam set a goal to become its leader someday. His election on Dec. 18 as president of South Korea fulfilled only half of his wish.
But by the end of his five-year term, which starts in February, Mr. Kim could be the leader - like Helmut Kohl of Germany - who presides over the reunification of his divided land.
With North Korea's economy and leadership as shaky as ever after the cold war, the incoming president of a stronger South Korea is likely to serve over a critical and historic transition. Kim predicts unification before the end of the century.
"He is the right person [for unification] because he will get less suspicion from the military and intelligence community," says Korea University professor Han Sung Joo.
In the meantime, however, Kim's focus will be on how to redesign a faltering South Korean economy and on how, as a former dissident, he can sweep out the remnants of authoritarian rule from government.
As the first civilian leader in three decades, Kim replaces Roh Tae Woo, a former general, who was elected in 1987 in a turbulent three-way race that set South Korea on a path toward democracy. Kim lost that election, as did fellow former dissident, Kim Dae Jung, as they fatefully split the opposition votes.
In this election, considered the fairest ever in South Korea, the two Kims vied almost directly, except for a third candidate, business tycoon Chung Ju Yung, and a few minor contenders. With 24.1 million people voting, Kim Young Sam won with a safe margin of 42 percent, compared to Kim Dae Jung's 34 percent and Mr. Chung's 16 percent.
The vote count revealed that regional rivalry is as strong as ever in South Korea. Kim Dae Jung, a native of the poorer, southwest region of Cholla, failed to make much headway in the larger, richer region of Kyongsang, which has long dominated Korea and is the turf of Kim Young Sam. Though not for lack of trying, Kim Dae Jung may have failed to convince voters that he had turned moderate after a political life of leftist causes.
As he did in 1987, Kim Dae Jung vowed after the election to retire from politics. "I failed again to gain the trust of the people. That I attribute to my own shortcomings," Kim told reporters.
HIS campaign pitch was to offer "change." But with economic growth at an 11-year low, Kim Young Sam won support by offering "reform with stability," which also may have gone over well with the nation's emerging middle-class. Since 1990, in a creative transition orchestrated by Roh, Kim Young Sam has moved from being an outsider to head of the ruling party he once railed against.
"Korea's economy is in a period of adjustment, and Kim will maintain stability," says Koo Bon Ho, an economist at Hanyang University.
The president-elect, however, promised not to leave Roh's policies intact. "I will boldly correct our systems," Kim said after the vote. "A new era of politics will begin."
Korea is now only three-quarters of the way to full democracy, says Dr. Han. "With Roh, we got about half of democratization. With Kim, we went another quarter. But he was supported by the military within the ruling party. The entrenched interests had their man elected. Still, this may be the right pace," Han says.
Kim Young Sam promised to overcome regionalism, which could mean taking the risky step of naming top officials from the Cholla region. Localism, he said in a speech, is a legacy of authoritarian governments and must be cured before other problems can be solved.
Kim has shown a flare for taking risks. As a young student, he put a banner in his schoolroom reading: "Future President Kim Young Sam."
In 1954, at age 26, he was elected to parliament as the youngest legislator ever. In 1964, he bolted from the then-ruling party in a protest against an authoritarian move.
After that, he rose to become dissident-hero against military-backed rulers in the 1970s and 1980s, suffering jail, a hunger strike, and harassment. As a result, analysts say, Kim learned to keep his real thoughts to himself, appearing taciturn and introverted. "It's difficult to know where he stands," a Korean diplomat says.
Only when he jumped to Roh's ruling party in 1990 did he tarnish his public image. But he justified the move as necessary to overcome a parliamentary deadlock, not an opportunity to become president.
His election victory comes as the economy has been cooled off by government action after the high growth of the 1980s. Kim is left with the task of coming up with a new formula for making South Korean exports competitive again on world markets and with opening the economy under pressure from Washington.
When Kim takes over the Blue House (the presidential home), he will rule over 44 million Koreans who have experienced swift change in just a few years.
Korea's democracy has matured and its consumerism has boomed. Almost every home, for instance, now has a television, compared to just 60 percent of homes in 1985. And the number of cars has nearly quadrupled in the same period.