New Face of Asia

Asia is a headline writer's delight. Four crisp letters covering a lot of ground. But it's also a sloppy generalist's evasion.

For two decades "Asia" was shorthand for the "Asian tigers" - booming economies, all lumped together. Last summer it became a code word for economic trouble in tigerland. Once again, all lumped together.

Now, at last, some welcome differentiation has arrived. Thanks to South Korea's new president, Kim Dae Jung, we are beginning to see the future of East Asia, contrasted to its past, personified in Indonesia's President Suharto.

Even before his inauguration, Kim moved to improve shaken morale, push opening of the economy to foreign investors, curb the oligopoly power of the country's debt-saddled conglomerates, and push labor to negotiate with management as unemployment has risen. He has also extended an olive branch to the staggering but belligerent Communist regime in North Korea. And he signalled a willingness to open the way for North-South family visits.

In short, Kim is acting like a democratic president in a nation previously run along autocratic, military-industrial complex lines. In that respect, he is beginning to shape the Asian tiger future. That future combines the industriousness of workers that shaped the long boom with a more competitive economic scene and more democratic political system.

The present crisis isn't over, but Kim has given Koreans a sense of hope and optimism. Already they are showing pride in the face of adversity. They have donated more than $1 billion in gold and diamonds to help the government pay its foreign debt. And a blood-donor drive is saving on the cost of buying imported plasma.

All of which puts President Kim in the position of a Churchill offering his people nothing but blood, sweat, and tears and finding proud patriotism in response. There are also overtones of Nelson Mandela in the inauguration of this once jailed and nearly killed reformer, who has pardoned his convicted authoritarian predecessors and extended a peace overture to the enemy sibling state to the north.

Taiwan and the Philippines display different versions of becoming more democratic. Regimes like that of Indonesia, where nepotism, crony dealings, and tight political control persist, will one day follow this trend. Even China, whose top officials have offered admiration for South Korea, cannot ignore what Kim has done to change the mood of his country.

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