President-elect Kim Dae Jung of South Korea faces a staggering agenda. But he may be uniquely prepared, by decades of fighting for democracy against all odds, to steer his country toward more enduring stability and progress.
Mr. Kim's priority, clearly, is South Korea's current financial crisis. The fabulously vigorous Korean economy, which was ranked 11th in the world, has rapidly become the most spectacular in a series of financial collapses in Asia. South Korea's problems, like those of other Asian "tigers," sprang from lax regulation that allowed the amassing of bad loans by businesses and banks.
Collusive relationships between government bureaucrats, financial institutions, and corporations have been a way of life. The adjustments required by the International Monetary Fund, which is spearheading a $60 billion rescue package, are designed to change that. And, despite nationalist resentments, the National Assembly is busily passing reform legislation in line with the IMF requirements.
The president-elect stirred a wave of concern among creditors and investors during the campaign when he ventured he might try to alter some IMF stipulations that seemed overly burdensome to South Korea. But Kim quickly corrected course and has since missed few opportunities to reassure the world's financial community that he intends to cooperate fully with the IMF. Even with that political dexterity, the markets initially sagged at news of his election.
Kim's efforts to guide the country through its economic storms will go hand in hand with efforts to build political consensus and broaden his support beyond its regional core in the country's southwest. As the first opposition figure to take South Korea's highest office, he has lots of former adversaries that will have to become, at the least, allies of convenience. Thus his startling move to back the pardon of two former leaders, Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan, imprisoned for violently repressing past dissent and for corruption. It was a move that disgusted some old colleagues, but it probably raised Kim's stock with conservatives and the military.
Kim will need all the unity he can muster as he pursues the other major item on his agenda: reconciliation with North Korea. He had already announced he'd be open to a summit with the North's Kim Jong Il. With talks brokered by the US and China under way, the outlook for a South-North dialogue has brightened. Even the South's economic woes could make the North a little less wary. Not just Koreans, but the whole world, will watch to see if Kim can cool one of the world's hottest hot spots.