South Korea opposition: Can the `two Kims' stick together?

For the past weeks the weight of Korean public expectation has rested heavily upon President Chun Doo Hwan's government. Now the opposition, too, is beginning to share that burden. In granting the opposition's main demands for democratic reforms - by promising yesterday to hold direct presidential elections - the ruling Democratic Justice Party has temporarily sent the ball into the other court.

The public is watching to see if the uneasy coalition of opposition forces will once again revert to its characteristic factionalism.

A major concern is the dormant rivalry between the two main opposition leaders - Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam. The ``two Kims'' have joined forces against the government for some 20 years and also kept up an enduring competition for power, which has often split the opposition at crucial moments.

The ruling party clearly hopes that the two Kims will soon be at each other's throats. The prospect seems so palpable that the two men were prompted to issue a declaration of unity yesterday.

Many observers of South Korea's political scene believe that a renewed split of the two Kims is the ruling party's best, and perhaps only, chance of remaining in power. The strategy of Roh Tae Woo, the ruling party's leader and candidate for president, is based on that gambit.

``Realistically,'' a Western diplomat believes, ``Roh cannot win an absolute majority of votes in an election.'' His only chance is, with a split opposition, to win a plurality.

The Kims are well aware of this strategy. That is why, the diplomat believes, ``Kim Dae Jung is resisting the idea of jumping into the fray,'' saying that he will not be a candidate for president. The prospect of a Kim Dae Jung presidency is considered anathema to the military, even grounds for a coup. Kim Young Sam is viewed as more acceptable.

The differences between the two men are less of policy than of political style. Kim Young Sam is known as a consensus-style politician.

Kim Dae Jung, in contrast, ``is definitely `The Leader.' ... There's much more of a personal magnetism,'' the Western diplomat says. His image is that of a man who has spent 20 years sacrificing for the cause. A Roman Catholic, he is far more attractive to the activists - the church-related organizers and students - who have led the protests.

``Kim Young Sam is a good politician,'' says Lee Jae Ho, the leader of the Korean Christian Student Federation, ``but for us, as students, he's too conciliatory, compromising, and somewhat far from the struggle.'' For the radicalized students who have been the vanguard of the street protests of the past weeks, ``both [Kims] are conservative, but students will prefer Kim Dae Jung,'' he says.

These contrasting images also reflect a strong regional rivalry in South Korea. Kim Young Sam hails from the traditionally dominant, industrially developed southeast. Kim Dae Jung is from the economically backward southwest.

In the past these differences have led to open splits. Many oppositionists recall the ``Seoul Spring'' of 1979-80. After former President Park Chung Hee's assassination, there was a brief period of open politics and an opportunity to create a democratic system. Instead, as student protests mounted, the two Kims fought for power. The feuding ended with the military takeover that brought Mr. Chun to power.

That experience, say antigovernment activists, was a powerful lesson. An important factor in the Kims' determination not to split may be the role of activist groups allied with their Reunification Democratic Party (RDP), which have supplied much of the manpower for the struggle.

Pressure from these groups, an official of the National Church Council says, was applied earlier this year, when the RDP was on the verge of splitting over how uncompromising a stance to take in constitutional reform negotiations with the government. According to the official, Rhee Kyoung Bae, the Kims were told by Council officials and others that ``if you divide, dissident groups will not even support the opposition party.''

``They will not be divided,'' believes Mr. Rhee, ``until after the election.'' A compromise, he suggests, may be to have Kim Young Sam as president and Kim Dae Jung as party head.

Still, many Koreans suspect - and the ruling party hopes - that the lure of power, after years in the wilderness, will be too strong for Kim Dae Jung. But, says Rhee, with the prospect of permanently altering South Korea's authoritarian power structure, Kim Dae Jung ``is not going to do a foolish thing.''

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