Victim of Korea's Past, Kim Tries to Heal It

New leader meets Clinton tomorrow to seek an end to sanctions on North Korea.

His country has been occupied by Japan, invaded by communists, ruled by dictators, torn by regional rivalry, and laid low by the global economy.

As for himself, Kim Dae Jung was exiled, kidnapped, jailed, sentenced to death, and almost assassinated during his decades as a political dissident in South Korea.

But now this newly elected leader, who holds his first summit with President Clinton tomorrow, says enough is enough.

Able to overcome his personal trauma and forgive political enemies, he wants his country to do the same. Reconciliation is his calling.

President Kim, who cites Abraham Lincoln as a model for how to save a country, plans to ask the United States to unconditionally drop economic sanctions against North Korea.

US officials say they are open to discussing the idea - one that South Korea, which faces a military threat from the North, has never sought.

The former dissident's dream is to use his moral leadership to improve relations with North Korea, Japan, and within South Korea. But his challenge is to balance magnanimity with strong domestic sentiment against reconciliation.

His foreign minister, Park Chung Soo, offhandedly referred to Japan's "emperor" during a recent press conference, a stark change from the South Korean custom to use the less-dignified "king." He was setting the stage for Kim's mission of trying to put the shadow of Japan's colonial rule behind the two countries for good. South Korea is taking "a forward-oriented and positive view," Mr. Park said.

But for Koreans, "emperor" reflects imperial interests and seems distasteful, especially as Japan has still not fully apologized for its role in World War II. Newspapers glibly asked whether Korean women used as sex slaves by Japan's Imperial Army should now be called "devotees," as Japan called them.

Most South Koreans agree that it's time to build more normal relations, but lingering hurt and sensitivities in Korean society make Kim's job tricky, causing him to take a step-by-step approach.

To nurture a "new partnership" with Japan, Kim promises to lift a ban on Japanese pop culture. Many Koreans disapprove, criticizing Japanese culture as violent and sexually explicit. Ironically, Japanese culture has already arrived via novels and satellite TV.

Such policies risk a negative domestic reaction or nonreciprocation from North Korea or Japan. "We don't mind these risks," Park counters. "We won't let these matters stand before what we have to do."

The alternative "is stalemate," says Yang Sung Chul, a lawmaker for the National Congress for New Politics, Kim's party. However, "if there's a 'big bang' approach to [opening to Japan], there will be an enormous repercussion in South Korea," Mr. Yang admits.

The key is for the Japanese to "concede and show a compromising spirit [too]," Foreign Minister Park says.

In the past, Kim himself was more compromising, particularly regarding North Korea. These days, some reciprocity is expected. Kim is more pragmatic and conservative now, says Byun Yong Shik, an editor at Chosun Ilbo, a Seoul daily.

Before his election, Kim frequently was accused of being a communist. "It's [Kim's] biggest worry that he might be misunderstood by people" if he supports the North too unilaterally, Mr. Byun says.

The new tact was in evidence when the two Koreas met in Beijing April 11 to discuss fertilizer aid and inter-Korean family reunions. South Korea stuck to its principles and refused to give fertilizer unless North Korea did something in return. It didn't, and the talks quickly broke down.

Kim has been encouraging North Korea ever since he took office. The private sector is now free to risk doing business with the North. North Korean TV and radio broadcasts could soon be available in Seoul. "Although lots of [war veterans] have opposed Kim's [lenient] policies to North Korea in the past, their discord has mostly gone away," says an official at the country's veterans agency.

At home, Kim hopes to hold together an agreement between labor, management, and the government meant to facilitate economic recovery while minimizing social unrest.

Labor unions trust Kim, who has been a long-time advocate. The agreement signed early this year is a first. But layoffs are just beginning, as are protests, which could get out of hand.

Kim must also manage a coalition government and wrestle with an opposition that mirrors regional differences. But with the cold war over, differences rooted in red-baiting have less capacity to divide South Koreans. They could truly start to melt.

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