This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on December 27, 2000.
"Crisis" is a badly overused word, and it is getting a workout these days in South
In one sense, if the country is in crisis, all countries should be so lucky,
for both growth and unemployment stand at 5%, enviable numbers by world standards.
Yet the country could talk itself into a recession, though not one as deep as
that of 1997-98, if consumers became convinced that one was impending.
More striking, President Kim Dae Jung is all but a lame duck well before his
time--the next elections are not until 2002. Even his Nobel Prize was controversial
beneath the surface in South Korea, and his friends have begun to worry about
his capacity for governing.
In part, Kim's problem is that while history judges political leaders by the
full reel of their performance, they live and die in the snapshots of their
own politics. So Kim gets little credit at home for how far the country has
come. Even his "sunshine policy" toward North Korea and the historic summit
meeting in June with its leader, Kim Jong Il, are now old news. What is today's
news is that the economy has recovered but has not been restructured, the opening
to the North is stuck, with no sign that Kim Jong Il's visit to Seoul is imminent,
and the country is trapped in political gridlock.
South Korea's economy has lots going for it. The country is more wired than
most in Asia, and its trade balance and foreign reserves are strong. Yet economic
restructuring to let the market, not the government, allocate resources will
be a long process. "Reform" is a mantra, but one that lacks meaning for a country
that was "a developmental dictatorship" in which the government drove the economy
in tandem with a few large conglomerates, or chaebol. And as the government
has failed to build a constituency, so the pain of each phase in the restructuring
has turned yet another group against the process.
For all the talk of letting the market work, the government still channels
money. The bailout of the banking system has already cost $100 billion. If Daewoo
Motors is allowed to fail and be sold to GM or another foreign car maker, that
would be a salutary lesson. Yet that lesson would be erased if the government
continued to subsidize Hyundai Engineering & Construction. Hyundai's Kumgang
tourism project in North Korea is politically sensitive but is now losing $100
million per year. The government's credibility on economic reform is low, including
with its own constituency. Labor, for instance, believes that whatever the government
may say, it will rescue Daewoo to keep such a flagship company "Korean."
The next test in the rapprochement with the North is the promised-but-not-scheduled
visit of the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, and then whether security issues can
be integrated into the North-South process. So far, the North has tried to compartmentalize
the process, leaving security issues to its dealings with the United States.
Further, the challenge is to build a consensus in the South in support of the
policy. That will require, if not full "reciprocity," then at least real, visible
movement from the North.
Kim Dae Jung's continued optimism stands at odds with the prevailing skepticism
among those who had governed the country until his election in 1997 and who
continue to see themselves as its rightful governors. President Kim has not
done well at explaining his sunshine policy, and he is vulnerable to the charge
that the two achievements that earned him the Nobel Prize are in conflict: He
won for his advocacy of human rights and his opening toward the North, but human
rights remain deeply violated in the North, and he has said little about this
since his trip to Pyongyang.
Politically, the country is deeply divided, and Kim's lame duck status was,
in a curious way, exaggerated by the Nobel Prize, which underscored how much
more revered he is abroad than at home. One of his great achievements is also
a vulnerability. He brought his downtrodden southwestern region, Cholla, into
national life for the first time. Yet the process has deepened regional divisions.
In elections last April, more than 90% of the vote in Pusan went to the opposition,
while in Cholla the same fraction went to the president's ruling party.
President Kim's experience was jail and exile, not governance, and he tried
to govern with a mix of loyal outsiders and sitting bureaucrats. The outsiders
were inexperienced and tended to be dismissed--not entirely fairly--as bumpkins
by the ruling elite, and the bureaucracy has gained the upper hand.
Kim Dae Jung believes in democracy but is not himself a democrat. He continues
to lead in an autocratic way. Korea remains under the rule of the rulers, not
the rule of law. To be fair, the country's structure makes the president a kind
of elected autocrat. He is the real power, yet is not accountable to the parliament.
In some ways, that structure makes the lack of confidence in the president
all the more worrisome. He has talked of a major reshuffling of his government,
but so far that is only talk. The snapshot of his current doldrums is a reminder
of how often leaders, like former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev or the
late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, have been more esteemed outside their countries
than inside. Kim has at least taken the basket off the lamp--there is now some
light shining on Korea's politics. Yet it is worth remembering that not a single
postwar South Korean president has finished his term without disgrace.
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