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
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
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
Yet here again the actual course has been more a mixture of ups and downs than a continuous downward slide. Amid rising tensions the Prime Ministers managed to meet two more times, the last conference in Pyongyang in September producing supplementary protocols for implementing the Agreement. There was also an ‘unofficial fact-finding tour’ in July by Kim Dal-hyŏn, the Vice Premier in charge of North Korea’s external economic cooperation, and the visit was later reciprocated by a team of South Korean businessmen to the North. Official insistence on ‘linkage’ may even be having the ironic effect of promoting such (ostensibly) non-governmental contacts. In any event, both sides seem to share a solid interest in some kind of economic collaboration at least. The recent reshuffle in the dprk Government, including promotion of Kim Dal-hyŏn to a higher party post, indicates the same, and one may expect renewed High-Level and other contacts some time next spring, after Kim Young-sam has been formally sworn in and the Team Spirit exercises are over. The rok Government’s release at Christmas of the student Im Su-kyng and Catholic priest Moon Kyu-hyŏn who had been serving prison terms for unauthorized visits to North Korea may be another conciliatory gesture, although on the domestic scene many critics have charged that it was a cynical cover for the far more generous pardons simultaneously granted to the former high officials of Chun’s and Roh’s regimes.
The characteristically zigzag fashion of South Korea’s progress both in democratization and in its rapprochement with North Korea has thus repeatedly confounded optimists and pessimists alike. Now Kim Young-sam’s electoral victory will no doubt encourage that breed of optimists who see South Korea finally on its way to becoming a stable