"He is our hero," says Park Young Sook, a student, hiking atop one of the rocky peaks of Mount Yudai, which rises more than 700 feet above the city and its glistening harbor and is sheltered by dozens of islands from the Yellow or West Sea.
Attitudes in this city in the depths of the Cholla region contrast with the rest of the country. Nationwide, feelings about the longtime approach are mixed – especially as North Korea has revved up its rhetoric against the South in recent days. And if his conservative party does well, as expected, in National Assembly elections on April 9, recently inaugurated president Lee Myung Bak will have the confidence to pursue what he calls a "pragmatic" policy toward North Korea.
The North blasted Mr. Lee in an editorial in the party newspaper Tuesday as "a traitor" and "sycophant toward the United States," after a South Korean general said the South would have to stage a "preemptive strike" if the North threatened a nuclear attack on the South.
Yet, as the central government adopts a tough line toward North Korea, people here in the wellspring of Mr. Kim's support revere the former leader as a hero for developing North-South relations after more than a half-century of war and crisis. Kim regularly won 95 percent of the votes from the Cholla region in his four presidential campaigns. Now the question is whether his Sunshine policy can survive under Lee.
The president faces his first real test on April 9 when voters cast their ballots for 245 seats in the National Assembly. (The remaining 54 seats are divvied up among parties in proportion to the number of seats they win in the elections.)
Polls by newspapers and TV networks show that Lee's Grand National Party is likely to win 150 seats – the majority he wants to push through what he calls a "pragmatic" policy on the North.
However, while support for the Sunshine policy has declined as North Korea stonewalls on concessions promised in a nuclear deal signed one year ago, few Koreans want to reverse the past 10 years' progress toward rapprochement.
On the streets of this crowded city of 250,000 people, the Sunshine policy remains a popular slogan.
One of Kim Dae Jung's former top aides, Park Jie Won, is running hard on the issue of reconciliation with the North. A former culture minister and presidential spokesman, Mr. Park served three years in prison for his role in bribery that helped bring about a summit with North Korea in 2000.
Park hopes that his loyalty to Kim Dae Jung will overcome the disgrace of having gone to jail.
Kim Dae Jung's second son, Kim Hong Up, jailed in a separate bribery case and later pardoned, also is counting on his father's popularity and legacy in a campaign for the National Assembly from the district just north of here.
His candidacy got a boost when his stepmother, Lee Hee Ho, spoke before several thousand people here, urging them to remember the blessings her husband bestowed on the region. Most of all, she says, "We must fight for peace" and not turn the clock back on progress toward North-South reconciliation.
Conservatives hope their candidate here will garner 10 percent of the votes.