If South Korean parliamentary elections were to be held tomorrow instead of April 13, the party of President Kim Dae Jung would suffer a rude defeat, according to opinion polls.

The chief casualties of such a loss would be the president’s economic-reform program, which has brought the country out of the Asian financial crisis, producing a 9 percent growth rate last year, and Kim himself, who would become a lame-duck leader until his mandated single term ends in 2003.

Kim’s “sunshine policy” of encouragement toward North Korea might be harmed, as would his candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is based on his long prodemocracy record.

On the other hand, there are analysts who think Kim’s virtuoso style would actually be enhanced by the removal of domestic political encumbrances. He would then be freed up to use his time to negotiate a visit to North Korea for talks with Pyongyang leader Kim Jong Il as a symbol of the realization of his “sunshine policy” and accompanying quest for the Nobel Prize.

The latest polls, including one conducted by the leading newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, show the conservative and probusiness opposition Grand National Party leading in 107 of 227 parliamentary districts, compared to 97 for Kim’s ruling Millennium Democratic Party.

The remaining 46 seats in the 273-member national assembly are apportioned based on results in the popular-vote race, in which the GNP and MDP are said to be running neck and neck.

Two smaller polls claimed that size of the undecided bloc, nearly one-third of the electorate, makes the outcome “too close to call.”

This gives the South Korean election a certain similarity to that of Taiwan, where I spent most of March. The vibrant stirrings of democracy in Taiwan were like a spring wind, blowing away old elements in the form of the long-entrenched Nationalist Party and ushering in new personalities.

Thirty years ago, when I first visited Taiwan, there were no elections at all. Now the people have spoken, provided an example that must be giving mainland China cause for worry. Will its Communist Party be toppled someday like Taiwan’s Kuomintang?

Similarly, when I first came to Korea 30 years ago there was little democracy. But change has swept the peninsula. The problem is to not get impatient, because there are still plenty of dangers.

When he was elected president on Dec. 19, 1997, Kim said, “I always maintained that economic and democratic development must go together. Now, they have elected me, and I will pursue both, hand in hand.”

Some Americans once feared that, as president, Kim might try to “go it alone,” call the withdrawal of U.S. troops and negotiate with the North directly. Those anxieties have proved unfounded, and Kim solidly supports cooperation with the United States.

Kim had hoped that intense competition would overcome the aberrations in Korean political life, where factionalism is a hallmark. But support for two conservative parties, the United Liberal Democrats and the Democratic People’s Party, has been undermined by civic groups using the Internet to level accusations of corruption and incompetence against the older generation of politicians. This syndrome cuts both ways for Kim, helping him among some groups and hurting him among others.

Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea have tentatively set a May meeting in Sapporo for a visit to Japan by Kim to discuss a range of issues. Before that, Japan-North Korea negotiations on establishing diplomatic ties will resume April 4 for the first time since talks collapsed in 1992.

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