The victory of the ruling party candidate Kim Young-sam over Kim Dae-jung in the recent (December 1992) Presidential election marks a significant milestone in South Korean politics. Obviously it promises less of a change than an oppositional victory, but the mere fact that the winner is the first civilian in thirty two years to hold power is a substantial novelty. That he was for most of his political career an opposition leader, an erstwhile colleague and rival of Kim Dae-jung’s in the democratic movement, also entails a style and outlook markedly different even from most civilians in the ruling circles, for all the anger his abrupt change of course aroused among some of his former supporters when, in January 1990, he decided to join forces with President Roh Tae-woo. Kim Young-sam’s candidacy, moreover, seems to have received less than full-hearted support from Roh, and while the Government’s ‘neutrality’ during the campaign was not quite what it was proclaimed to be, it may have reflected as much a certain coolness toward Kim on Roh’s part as an awareness that the public would not brook the more blatant kinds of foul play habitual in the past. At any rate, the election process was orderly enough, and the winner’s margin sufficiently comfortable (42 per cent to 34 per cent with a third candidate receiving 16 per cent), to elicit quick opposition acquiescence in the outcome—another novelty in South Korean politics.

The election also finally brought to an end the ‘era of two Kims’ in which since the early 1970s Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam dominated the country’s political scene, first as rival opposition leaders and lately as adversaries across a more clearly demarcated line. In the statement acknowledging defeat Kim Dae-jung announced his retirement from politics, including resignation from his National Assembly seat. The decision leaves the major opposition Democratic Party in at least temporary disarray, but with or without that decision the failure of Kim Dae-jung’s third Presidential campaign has meant frustration to many. It is most keenly felt probably by the population of his own Southwestern region who voted solidly for him and who have long placed in him their hope of ending the dominance of the Southeastern provinces, under which they suffered many wrongs including the massacre of Kwangju citizens by General (later President) Chun Doo-hwan’s troops in 1980. But no less balked have been the many reform-minded and radical groups who supported Kim Dae-jung’s candidacy as the only realistic alternative.

Theirs may be considered a double defeat since they failed either to see him elected or to change to any significant degree the candidate’s basic strategy of wooing moderate and conservative voters. In fact, the mass opposition movement now finds itself at a low point sharply contrasting with the heady days of June 1987 when a nationwide mass protest action inspired by both of the Kims, and by a wide-ranging radical grouping, forced Chun Doo-hwan to renounce the scheme of perpetuating the dictatorship and to accept constitutional reforms providing for (among other things) direct election of the President. Of course, that broad coalition was broken up almost immediately, beginning with the split of the two Kims which ensured Roh Tae-woo’s victory at the polls that year, followed by divisions between the reformist supporters of the parliamentary opposition and the more radical formations and among the latter groups themselves, then further weakened by the defection of Kim Young-sam in the merger with the Government party. While neither his election nor Kim Dae-jung’s retirement implies a total defeat of the popular democratic forces, it certainly calls for some real soul-searching and a fundamental realignment on their part.

For South Korean society as a whole—and hence for the democratic movement, too, in the long run—the upshot certainly is far from unequivocal. Not only has Kim Young-sam’s election certain novel features in itself, his regime will probably take vigorous steps to accentuate the image of ‘civilian rule’, even though promises of more substantive reform are less likely to be fulfilled, and items like workers’ rights and the abrogation, or drastic revision, of the National Security Law were not even promised in his programme for ‘reform amidst stability’. Quite apart from the promises and intentions of the President-elect, it would also seem reasonable to assume that the remarkable ups and downs which South Korea’s democratization has witnessed since 1987 will not easily turn into a tidy pattern. For, as noted above, the popular victory in June and the subsequent dramatic upsurge in workers’ militancy in August and September of that year was followed by defeat in the Presidential election of December. But then in the National Assembly elections of April 1988 three opposition parties together came to hold a majority of seats, thus blocking or swaying some crucial Presidential appointments, reviving the Assembly’s investigative powers, conducting dramatic televized public hearings on past Government inequities—in sum, providing (while the tenuous coalition lasted) precious space for popular mobilization and empowerment. This is not the place to recount the story in detail. A decisive reversal occurred when two of the opposition parties (led by Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil respectively) merged with the ruling one, giving the Government more than two thirds of Assembly seats. Yet their original plan of moving towards a Cabinet system to assure themselves an enduring hold on power after the model of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party failed to take effect, partly due to Kim Young-sam’s Presidential ambitions but also to wide-spread popular resistance; and the Government even had to halt many of its crackdown measures in the face of nationwide demonstrations that followed the killing of a student by riot police in May 1991. The opposition’s high hopes were in turn frustrated in the freshly revived local assembly elections the following month, when the new ruling party won unexpected and overwhelming majorities. But still another reversal came in the general elections of March 1992 with the Democratic Liberal Party failing to win (though subsequently managing to form an absolute majority)—and now Kim Young-sam winning by a wider margin than most people expected.

Along with ‘democratization’ an equally vital issue for South Korea’s opposition has always been that of the reunification of the divided peninsula. This issue, however, was rather muted in the Presidential campaign, partly because on fundamentals Kim Dae-jung’s position diverges little from the Government’s, but also because Kim himself was eager to minimize even those differences that did exist, while the inter-Korean dialogue happened to be experiencing another impasse and gave the ruling Democratic Liberal Party no new pretext, only the old one of redbaiting the opposition. In fact, relations with North Korea, too, may be said to have reached a rather low point when one remembers the heady hopes that accompanied the signing in December 1991 of the ‘Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Cooperation and Exchange’ by the Prime Ministers of the Republic of Korea (rok) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dprk, or North Korea). The Agreement was the biggest breakthrough since the historic joint North-South Communiqué of July 1972 (which had enunciated the principles of a reunification ‘autonomous’, ‘peaceful’ and based on ‘great national unity’). The initial results were dramatic enough: by the end of 1991 the two sides had agreed on a Declaration making the peninsula nuclear-free; the Rev Sun Myung Moon, the fervently anti-Communist leader of the Unification Church (‘the Moonies’), and Kim Woo-jung, head of the Daewoo conglomerate, each made a highly publicized visit to Pyongyang; then came suspension of the ‘Team Spirit’ joint us-rok military exercise, over which many a North-South initiative had foundered in the past. In the next High-Level Talk (i.e., of Prime Ministers) in February 1992 both the Agreement and the Declaration came into formal effect. But a chill soon set in with international (mainly us) concern about North Korea’s alleged nuclear capability and South Korea’s subsequent stipulation of a ‘linkage’ between progress in mutual nuclear inspection and other issues. Nor can this deterioration be altogether blamed on American pressure: reactive interests are numerous enough within South Korea, and the uncertain shifts in the domestic balance between the Government and the opposition must also play a part. At any rate, the us and rok Governments have now gone to the length of announcing the resumption of the ‘Team Spirit’ next year unless the North comes round on the nuclear issue, and the dprk in turn asserts there will be no High-Level Talks while the South allows the military exercises to take place.