S. Korea's enthusiasm fizzles for cozying up to North
Weeks after winning the Nobel Prize, president has chorus of naysayers at home.
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — The world summoned a round of applause for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung last month in the form of the Nobel Peace Prize, a bow to his efforts in human rights and in reconciliation with Seoul's onetime enemy - North Korea.
But in many circles here, the sounds of clapping have been faint. While Mr. Kim's peace moves with North Korean Communist leader Kim Jong Il are being recognized internationally as a bold olive branch toward reducing tensions on the cold war's last divide, some South Koreans view their president as too willing to give away the grove without getting anything in return.
The highs of the unprecedented summit between the two Koreas in June have given way to the reality of painstakingly slow progress. On two fronts:
* Promised reunions for the approximately 10 million South Koreans who have been cut off from family members in the North for the past half century. Some 200 North and South Koreans got to meet long-lost relatives in August, only to be cut off from each other again without further opportunity for contact.
* Rebuilding the railroad to reopen transportation on the divided peninsula. The long process of demining along the border, as well as North Korean footdragging, means that the Pyongyang-Seoul express does not appear to be getting on track quickly. North Korea's military presence along the most heavily armed border on earth, critics here complain, has actually grown more worrisome.
The Grand National Party (GNP), the largest opposition group, says Kim has bestowed international legitimacy on Kim Jong Il without winning much in return.
"When we give something to the North Koreans, they should respond in some manner," says Jeon Jae-wook, a GNP diplomatic and foreign affairs official. The North "has been avoiding these discussions.... The military hotline hasn't happened, and the North Koreans have even stepped up their troop actions."
Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with Pyongyang helped bring the authoritarian North Korean regime to the negotiating table in June. But Mr. Kim's opponents say that the policy allowed Kim Jong Il to capitalize on the chance to drastically improve his relations with the West - topped by a trip to Pyongyang Oct. 23-24 by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the possibility of another by President Clinton - without being forced to take concrete steps to reform, nor to reduce his threat of missile attack on South Korea.
While the peace prize's announcement filled the skies with fireworks, a skeptical opposition predicts that the rah-rah will fade into the realpolitik of an unrepentant, still dangerous North Korea. Says Mr. Jeon: "We think that when the dust settles, people's opinions will change."
Like other recent winners of the peace prize, Mr. Kim appears to be more popular abroad than he is at home. Shimon Peres won the prize in 1994, but twice failed to win enough support in Israel to be elected thereafter. His co-recipient, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated months after receiving the award, five years ago this week. Northern Ireland's John Hume and David Trimble, the 1998 winners, have not been free from political attack, nor their country free from violence.
At times, the prize can add to the chorus of domestic criticism about leaders putting the quest for a place in the history books over the desires of their people.
"Many here are cynical, and we know that he tried hard to get the prize. Kim Dae Jung is now extremely unpopular," says Namkyu Lee, an editor at the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's conservative daily. In a poll released Nov. 1 by the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper in Seoul, Kim's support rate was 50.9 percent, down from 71.3 percent in August.
Hard-liners here and in Japan, who feel threatened by the nuclear weapons technology that North Korea is believed to be developing and exporting, mistrust Kim's enthusiasm for making peace with Pyongyang. "Is he patriotic enough to unite this country, or is this his attempt at securing his own fame?" Mr. Lee asks. "He is described as a fighter for democracy, but in reality, he doesn't allow any dissent in his government. Within his party, he is a dictator." Some in the opposition accuse Kim of trying to secure his power base by packing the government with supporters from his hometown Cholla province. Economic woes and ministerial resignations have bolstered some sentiment here that Kim does not run his domestic ship well. "All of these problems make us question President Kim's abilities," says Park Jie Won, a young office worker on his way past City Hall.
But political scientist Moon Chung-In, a sunshine-policy advocate who was part of Kim's delegation to Pyongyang in June, says that Kim can now afford to loosen the strict stance he took toward dissenters in the past. "Kim Dae Jung has been an idealist in dealing with North Korea, but I would argue that he is a realist in domestic politics," says Dr. Moon, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. "After the Nobel Prize, I think he will be a much more conciliatory leader at home," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society