South Korea's New Leader: Symbol, and Test, of Democracy

The election last week of Kim Dae Jung as president of South Korea represents a victory for democracy in Korea. At the same time, it marks the rare elevation of a prominent Asian dissident to a position of power. It is, in fact, the first time an opposition candidate has been elected in the Republic of Korea.

For three decades, Kim fought efforts by a succession of authoritarian rulers in Seoul to still his voice. He endured kidnapping, imprisonment, death sentences, and exile. Throughout this period, the United States government and human-rights groups interceded to save Kim's life and to free him from confinement.

American pressure

The US government, particularly during the Carter administration, exerted heavy pressure on the Korean government on Kim's behalf. Such interventions were motivated by human-rights concerns and by fears that the authoritarian nature of the Seoul regime would weaken support for US security policies in the region. But, in both the US and in Korea, there were critics of the interventions. Those opposed to the policies were suspicious of Kim and worried about weakening a strong regime in Seoul.

No one can ever fully know the degree to which these interventions saved Kim. Political dissidents at times question whether outside efforts on their behalf identify them too closely with foreign powers and increase the risk to their lives and political standing.

US interventions on behalf of other prominent dissidents in Asia have not been very effective. Benigno Aquino, a rival of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and a frequent subject of US intercessions, was killed upon his return to Manila. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma remains confined by military rulers in Rangoon, despite heavy pressures from outside. And few see prospects for the elevation to power of prominent dissidents in China.

But, whatever role outside support played in Kim's survival, his victory belongs to him and to the Korean people. He proved during these decades to be a man of honor and courage with impressive public support in his homeland. And he benefited from a democratically inclined middle class and the willingness of political leaders immediately preceding him to maintain a viable democracy. He benefited, too, from the current economic crisis and a recognition that the financial problems were the result of past traditions of cronyism and corruption within the political elite.

Yet, President-elect Kim faces perhaps the most serious challenge of his life. Political opposition doesn't always prepare one to govern. Although a congressman in his earlier days, Kim has had little experience in government. The president has wide power in the Republic of Korea, but the opposition Grand National Party will hold a majority in the National Assembly until the next election in 2000. Kim comes to power at a time when the economy is in deep decline and investors have shown initial reservations about the direction of his policies. He'll have to steer Korea through austere measures to meet the requirements of the International Monetary Fund; in doing so, he'll face the opposition of some of his chief supporters - the labor unions. He'll need to lead the country at a critical time in relations with North Korea.

What's at stake

More is at stake in Kim's success than the future of Korea. As he became a symbol of opposition to authoritarian rule in Asia, so he will also be a symbol of the test of democracy, a challenge to those who defend one-party regimes on the basis of "Asian values." This also places special responsibilities on the US, with its emphasis on democracy, to see the new regime succeed. Other dissidents and their oppressors will be watching.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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