S. Korea's new chief: blunt talk, clean hand

Both are smart, self-made men. Both cut their teeth as reformers with a heavy dose of human rights. Both are champions of the little guy and the downtrodden.

Most strikingly, both became president of South Korea as total outsiders - almost anti-elites - in a country where power is synonymous with pedigree, family rank, and education. Neither man graduated from college, let alone the "right" college.

Today, Kim Dae Jung is former president, leaving a large legacy on a divided peninsula that is confronting a nuclear crisis. Roh Moo-hyun is the new occupant of Blue House, a blunt, "clean hands" guy who does not owe the fat cats or the old guard, and who is given to populist gestures like one last week, when he bought his wife of 30 years a new wedding ring - the original one having been pawned long ago to help a social cause.

The comparisons have limits, of course. Mr. Kim is a statesman, famous since the 1960s as a pro-democracy dissident in a then-military dictatorship, who was saved from execution by US officials. He is a grand and now slightly tragic figure whose last year in office has been marred by scandals as well as by questions about the unification policy for which he won a Nobel Prize.

Rapid rise from unknown to leader

President Roh, until tapped by Kim for office last spring, was an unknown with little standing in Korea, let alone the world.

He doesn't speak English, and appealed to Korean nationalist emotions in the under-40 crowd. He ran for office on a tacit anti-US tenor, proudly saying that he had never visited America. Mr. Roh confided to friends he hadn't even expected to win the election, but was running to make his name known.

Now the labor lawyer from Pusan, who has little economic and security experience and whose orientation is well left of center, is taking over the third largest economy in Asia at a time when Kim Jong Il of the nuclear North is busy escalating threats.

The main theme of the two months since Roh's Dec. 19 victory has been "adjustment," sources say. One of Roh's strengths is his reputation as a quick study - he passed the Korean bar exam by teaching himself, and he has come to high office from a farming family, no mean feat. At the same time, critics here point to a president-elect whose unclear positions on economic reform and security matters still make him something of an unknown.

"I give him the benefit of the doubt," says a senior US official. "He could work wonders. His heart is in the right place, and he doesn't have the baggage of cronyism that we've seen with Kim. He doesn't owe anybody."

Two major unanswered questions hover over Roh: Who will guide the new president as he formulates a response to the nuclear crisis? And how will Roh, who seemed to favor anti-US sentiment last fall, work with a White House that early on showed little regard for the Sunshine Policy of embracing the North that Roh advocates?

Roh, like Kim, feels that peace and cooperation are the only ways to deal with North Korea, and that the regime of Kim Jong Il can be persuaded to change by a steady policy of talk and dialogue.

Yet so far, the North has wanted to talk only with the US, which takes the position that the North's nuclear program requires more than words in response.

"We have yet to formulate a system for dealing with the nuclear crisis on North Korea," says Kim Tae-hyo of the Institute for Foreign Affairs in Seoul. "Any initiative must be discussed and coordinated with the US. That's reality. Roh must listen to bureaucrats and intellectuals, including the conservative intellectuals, before forming a national policy."

Roh's chief foreign-policy adviser appears to be Ban Ki-moon, a highly respected career diplomat with extensive US-South Korea experience. His national security adviser is Ra Jong-yil, a moderate who once served as deputy director of Korean intelligence. Both appointments drew sighs of relief among the establishment here. Less certain is who will be foreign minister.

Some sources say it could be Yoon Young Kwan, a transition team member who shocked a Washington dinner party at the US Institute of Peace this month by saying that a North Korea with nuclear weapons was preferable to a North Korea that collapsed.

Roh will also need to address fragile US relations. "The US-South Korean alliance should be at its best right now, but unfortunately, it is at its worst ever," says Jung Hoon Lee of Yonsei University in Seoul. "The only one happy about that is North Korea.

"Actually, I think much of the problem is miscommunication. For some reason, the Roh team is convinced the US is trigger-happy or seeking to resolve things militarily. The US has not been saying that. But it seems to stick inside the transition team."

Roh's first US visit is likely to be in May, either to Washington or the Crawford ranch.

Today's inauguration is being attended by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Junichiro Koizumi of Japan is a guest head of state. But much of the pomp and circumstance has been muted due to the tragic Taegu subway incident last week, in which more than 130 Kor- eans were killed.

The legacy of an outgoing giant

That incident has also stunted evaluation of outgoing Kim's legacy.

The former president is a historic figure in Korea by any measure. He rarely got credit for economic reforms, though his tough policy of privatization and allowing big firms to fail if they were not innovative allowed Korea to weather the Asian financial crisis of 1997 with the least damage of any country in the region. "DJ," as he is popularly known here, also rarely got credit for small reforms, like the funding of orphanages.

Experts say that under DJ, Korea became a more pluralistic society. In one of the more patriarchal societies on earth, Kim raised the profile of women, worked on such basic issues as child care and equal pay, and created a Ministry of Gender Equality, a cabinet-level position.

Yet DJ could not escape what seems like a legacy of presidential cronyism.

Last year, his three sons were put in jail for accepting bribes and consorting with gangsters. Currently, the circumstances around the acceptance by North Korea's Kim Jong Il of the historic 2002 Korean summit are under investigation. Some $180 million to $500 million in unreported payments to the North, reportedly engineered by Kim and presumably aimed at facilitating the negotiation process, is prompting the equivalent here of a grand jury investigation.

Already Roh is renaming his engagement policy, articulated in today's inaugural address, a Peace and Prosperity Policy. (Sources say that if Roh finds it necessary to modify the Sunshine Policy, he can use the scandal as a political pretext.)

History's judgment on 'Sunshine'

Most problematic is how history will judge the Sunshine Policy. Critics today ask if the Koreas are any closer to formulating a federation on the peninsula. They argue that the fundamental strategy of the North has not changed, and that Pyongyang has simply benefited from a great deal of free aid from the South.

One longtime observer - and sympathizer of Sunshine - points to a flaw in the South's engagement with the North, noting that Kim, a human rights champion, turned a blind eye to human rights for those suffering under a policy of malnutrition and abuse in the North as the price of engagement.

That question may also come to rest on the doorstep of Roh - who is also a human rights advocate.

Kim's sacrifice for his country, however, is unquestioned and admired.

As he once put it, "I survived five attempts on my life, spent six years in prison, and lived for decades under exile, arrest, and surveillance." One American official notes: "No Korean has given as much for the cause of a democratic South and a united Korea as Kim."

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