Kim Dae Jung has come in from the cold. Once the very symbol of fiery democratic and civilian opposition to a dictatorial military government, Mr. Kim today is the image of a sober, responsible parliamentary leader.
``Our people want stability,'' he said in a recent Monitor interview. ``We cannot disregard our people's feelings.''
Every day the National Assembly is in session, Kim takes his seat in the vast, domed building erected by his archenemy, the late President Park Chung Hee. Together, the three opposition parties outnumber the ruling Democratic Justice Party in the assembly, and Kim heads the largest of the opposition parties (the Party for Peace and Democracy, or PPD).
Kim Dae Jung seems to be on his best behavior to prove that he can be a responsible opposition leader and that it will not be his fault if there is any breakdown in government-opposition communications. President Roh Tae Woo, as a minority President, rules with the sufferance of Kim and his two opposition counterparts - Kim Young Sam of the Reunification Democratic Party and Kim Jong Pil of the New Democratic Republican Party.
None of the Kims has made any move to try to unseat Mr. Roh. True, the nation is in a kind of political honeymoon until the Seoul Olympics are over in October. But the basic structure and style of government-opposition relationships are now being established.
``At present,'' Kim Dae Jung said, ``our attitude is to develop cooperation between the ruling party and the opposition - to develop smooth procedures, and also to liquidate past bad things [committed during under President Chun Doo Hwan].''
A significant part of Kim Dae Jung's support comes from students. But he draws a clear line between the liberal reforms he seeks and the extremism of the radical wing of the student movement - those who have been burning American flags or throwing firebombs at the police.
``We seek moderate reforms,'' he said of his party. The PPD is not conservative - rather it is ``centrist,'' he said, supporting both ``the free market system'' and ``aspirations after social justice.''
At the same time, ``we never support any radical extreme-left positions, such as pro-communism, violence, or the attitude of taking America and Japan as our enemies,'' he said.
Kim Dae Jung agreed that anti-Americanism was rising among young people, especially students. He ascribed this to the ``wrong Korea policy'' of the Reagan administration. Kim's own ties with US politicians tend to be with Democrats, and he seems to be looking for a change in US policy toward Korea if the Democrats win in November. ``If America really changes its policy to impress our people that America is now supporting democracy, then anti-American feelings will almost all cease.''
Kim said he still hoped that communist North Korea would send a team to the Seoul Olympics, as almost all communist countries are doing. He is urging Roh to propose talks at the prime ministerial level.
He also said that reunification of the Korean Peninsula can be achieved only in stages - the first being exchange of visits in various fields. Fundamentally, he said, what was required was confidence on the part of South Koreans that their own government was fully democratic. Only then could Seoul deal with Pyongyang as confidently as Bonn does with East Berlin.
Kim said he regretted the prevalence of regionalism in South Korea and said it had been fostered by the Park and Chun military regimes. He intends to be a candidate in the next presidential election five years hence, he said, ``but only if I can establish myself as a political leader for all Koreans, not just those from the Western part.'' (He comes from Cholla in southwestern Korea. Roh, Mr. Chun, and Park all came from the southeast.)
Kim has ample time until the next election to establish his credentials as an opposition leader ready to work for constructive causes. It is not an easy role in a country that has seen so much confrontation. But most Korean observers agree the success of South Korea's fledgling democracy depends largely on how successfully he manages to play this role.