South Korea's Two Kims Battle For the Electorate

But election disappoints a Korean public disillusioned with politics

FOR decades, the "two Kims" of South Korean politics jointly battled dictators and then, with democracy restored in 1987, fought each other over the presidency.

In an election today, either a taciturn and moderate Kim Young Sam or a fiery and left-leaning Kim Dae Jung is expected to reach his goal, replacing outgoing President Roh Tae Woo, who beat them both in the 1987 election.

Whichever Kim wins, or if a third-party candidate wins an upset victory, it will be anticlimactic for many South Koreans who, during a bitter 28-day campaign, appeared to be either bored with their young democracy or turned off by the candidates.

"People are not enthusiastic because they are tired of the two Kims," says Han Sung Joo, a professor at Korea University in Seoul. "But also our democracy has matured to the point where people are confident enough to feel apathetic about even voting."

About one-third of voters remained undecided just before the election. "Everyone thinks `Y. S.' [Kim Young Sam] is going to win, so why bother?" a Seoul computer salesman says. In the 1987 race, voters were fired up to achieve democracy after years of authoritarian rule.

The big spark in the campaign was the entry of a Ross Perot-type figure, Chung Ju Yung, the retired tycoon of the giant Hyundai corporate empire who has been given little chance of winning.

With his campaign war-chest, near-incredible promises of pork-barrel spending, and his helicopter campaigning across the country, the elderly Mr. Chung drew enough conservative support to threaten a once-easy victory for Kim Young Sam and possibly turn the election in Kim Dae Jung's favor.

Chung even bugged a globefish restaurant in Pusan, the home city of Kim Young Sam, and then released a tape of local officials plotting to help Mr. Kim win by inciting regional loyalties. The scandal put Kim on the ropes in the campaign's closing days.

Kim Young Sam had dominated the presidential sweepstakes since 1990, when he made a dramatic leap from the opposition to Mr. Roh's ruling party.

At that time, Roh faced parliamentary deadlock so his ruling party, a carry-over from the days of military dictatorship, sought to envelop Kim Young Sam's party and create a Korean model of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP has reigned in Japan for 37 years by horse-trading government posts between party factions.

The Korean imitation of the LDP was even named the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP). But when Kim Young Sam became the party's candidate last May, the DLP began to fray, with factional contenders to Mr. Kim either quitting or joining Chung's new United Peoples' Party.

Korea lacks Japan's feudal tradition that allows such a faction-ridden party to survive, Dr. Han says. "We always had a central, bureaucratic system," he explains. Roh himself tried to be neutral in the race by installing a nonpartisan Cabinet to reduce official meddling in the election.

"The politicians within the ruling camp still take that original [Japanese] concept in mind. But it's too early to tell if it will work," says Kim Yu Nam, professor at Dankook University in Seoul.

"Many of the old faces are already out of the merger. Kim Young Sam was sort of a hired hand. If he wins, he will have to come up with a totally new ruling camp by wooing some opposition into the government."

Whoever wins, Korea's young democracy with its political parties based more on personality than issues will likely be restructured. Not only are politicians expected to play musical chairs between parties, but a constitutional change could bring a Japanese-style parliamentary system.

"Constitutional change is needed to deal with many problems. We don't have a vice president, for instance, to balance a ticket. And elections are badly staggered," Han says. In addition, the Constitution limits presidents to one five-year term each, making them instant lame ducks. By moving to a parliamentary system, the winner of this election can hope to stay in power longer.

"Korean democracy takes years to change," Professor Kim says. "In just five years, the military no longer dominates the scene and student power is no longer effecting very much."

The winner will be the first South Korean leader in 31 years who will have never worn a military uniform. One of the legacies left by Roh, himself a former general, is to have put the military back in the barracks.

In their campaigns, all the candidates tried to reach for the political center.

They "failed to offer major political theses for the electorate to choose from," the Korea Times stated in an editorial.

Kim Dae Jung, like Bill Clinton, offered change. "We are at the crossroads. A change of government is the best choice we can make at this moment," he said at a news conference.

Kim Young Sam appealed to a Korean tendency for Confucian order. "The reform that I espouse is a gradual change of wrong institutions and practices amid stability," he said at a rally.

The only major issue, other than campaign violations, has been the economy, which has been dampened by lowest growth rate in 11 years.

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