SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Leading South Korea can be a daunting task these days. Promoting domestic reconciliation, steering economic restructuring, and facilitating a peaceful reunification with North Korea loom large on the president's "to-do" list.
So with presidential elections scheduled for December, South Koreans are going through a national soul-searching about what kind of leader they would like best.
Disillusioned with the endless scandals surrounding President Kim Young Sam, the country's first civilian leader in three decades, Koreans are pining for a strongman to take them through turbulent times.
And they would have gotten their wish if the ruling New Korea Party had chosen Rhee In-jae as its presidential contender during its primary July 21. A dark-horse candidate, Mr. Rhee was compared to former dictator Park Chung Hee. After televised debates showed how Rhee's decisive attitude and stern looks resembled Park, his popularity soared.
But he was edged out by the final winner, Lee Hoi Chang. Known as "Mr. Clean" for his principled stands as election watchdog head and supreme court justice, Mr. Lee has yet to prove his political acumen.
And while Mr. Kim is finishing off his term as a tarnished lame-duck president, South Koreans are writing a new, rose-tinted history of Park that emphasizes his economic achievements while ignoring his brutal 18-year rule. The former general took power in 1961 when South Korea's then-president proved corrupt and ineffective.
A recent opinion poll placed Park just below Mother Teresa, while President Kim ranked lower than Adolf Hitler.
Visitors to Park's thatched-hut birthplace have doubled, and presidential candidates - many of whom spent years opposing Park's iron-fisted rule - openly endorse him while stumping in his region.
Koreans want a clean and honest leader who will respect fair and transparent procedures, have vision, and be strong.
Every country, of course, wants honest and effective leaders. But Koreans in particular gravitate toward strong ones.
"Everything in this society is based on power," says Lee Joo-seop, a political science graduate student in Seoul.
When Koreans meet, he says, they first figure out who's superior by determining age or occupation. Their conversation then reflects this through numerous verb forms and suffixes that indicate social hierarchy.
And decades of military rule have shaped how they regard their leaders.
While jailing opponents, smashing unions, and muzzling the press, Park and his successors bent the rules. But they also got things done, and Korea boasts one of the world's fastest industrializations. During Park's rule, South Korea's per capita gross national product jumped from about $80 in 1961 to $3,000 in 1979.
But the task of building an advanced democracy isn't complete, and South Korea is at a crossroad.
The country's political system is still immature, with lawmakers often appealing to voters by harping on divisive regionalism rather than policy alternatives.
Some speculate a crisis with North Korea or the economy crumbling could trigger authoritarian reflexes in today's democratically elected rulers.
But a "return to the past is unimaginable," says Chung Si-ahn, a political science professor at Seoul National University. Koreans may welcome strong rulers, he says, "but that doesn't mean [they want] oppressive and brutal leadership."
The desirable traits Koreans want in their leaders, Chung continues, "are not the same [as those in other] democracies with long and stable histories."
Hur Kyong-ho, a professor at Kyunghee University, calls the Park revival "just a simple, very emotional nostalgia. How can you possibly worship the dictator?" he asks.
The election isn't until December, but barring a ruling party split or multi-opposition alliance, polls show that of the three final presidential contenders - Lee, Kim Dae Jung, and Kim Jong Pil - Lee is likely to win.
Kim Dae Jung, leader of the National Congress of New Politics, is considered most qualified. But while he is articulate and experienced, his fourth presidential bid may fail because voters are sick of old faces, and his outspoken progressive image weighs against him in this conservative society.
Anybody's better than Kim Young Sam, many here say. Although some early successes, Koreans chastise him for lacking the policy knowledge, vision, and sophistication to be president. By replacing institutional channels of governing with personal ones, Kim alienated public servants and gained a reputation for being stubborn and authoritarian. When scandals piled up this spring, pundits declared him a lame duck. Kim is constitutionally limited to a five-year term, which ends in February.
On the night of the primary, President Kim and candidate Lee clasped hands and raised massive bouquets high to a stadium full of delegates. The president looked ruddy and happy after a long day. The new candidate appeared tight-lipped and tense, perhaps contemplating the job ahead.