South Korea’s Kim has an unhappy ending

SEOUL, South Korea (Washington Post) – This should be the golden year for Kim Dae-jung, insist those who remain loyal. His final year as the president of South Korea, they say, ought to be filled with national affection and appreciation.

After all, they point out, he saved the economy, bringing the country back from the brink of default in the 1997-1998 economic crisis. By his own force of will, he set the nation on a new course of reconciliation with its old enemy, North Korea. He remade South Korea’s image by bringing home a Nobel Peace Prize, won for brave principle and integrity, and topped it off by co-hosting a splendid World Cup soccer tournament.

But there is little love for Kim Dae-jung in his homeland.

Instead of a statesman retiring with respect, he is finishing his political life scorned or ignored by his countrymen. He is reduced to being a figurehead brought out by aides to try to show that at 76, he is still healthy and relevant.

His political stock is negligible. Parliament has bluntly rejected his last two nominees for prime minister, and Kim resigned from his own Millennium Democratic Party to try to save it, but it is likely to split up anyway. The party’s nominee to replace him is going nowhere in the polls.

Even as his hallmark “sunshine policy” of openhanded friendship with North Korea belatedly shows results, his potential successors disown the strategy, and the public dismisses it as naive.

Kim’s admirers describe Kim’s tragedy in Shakespearean terms: The strengths that brought him to office became the very factors that have helped bring about his public downfall.

He won the presidency with a reputation of unbending moral rectitude. When he took office in 1997, he doggedly pursued a lifelong vision of reconciliation with North Korea despite howls that he was giving away too much to the hostile Communist regime.

But in office, he maintained the stubborn unwillingness to compromise that served him well as a political dissident. It backfired on him as president.