SEOUL — South Korea’s 16th general election for the National Assembly held two weeks ago was hardly a mandate for President Kim Dae Jung’s ruling Millennium Democratic Party. Although it forced Kim to reach out to the opposition Grand National Party, it has not impaired his ability and authority to govern. He can thank the power of the office he holds under a presidential as opposed to a parliamentary system. Indeed, that is perhaps the main reason why he has been reluctant to support South Korea’s transition toward the latter, as advocated by his erstwhile Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil and coalition partner — a principal factor precipitating their breakup.
Kim Jong Pil thought he had the nod for the top job in the next administration under a new system. As it turned out, his party (the United Liberal Democrats) fell below the threshold minimum (20 seats) to form a parliamentary group, although it still holds the balance of power in a new coalition since neither the MDP or GNP secured a clear majority in the National Assembly.
The question hanging over the election is what it said about support for President Kim and his policies. It was hardly the resounding victory he sought. And in view of his success in bringing South Korea’s economic crisis under control, it must be judged a repudiation of presidential leadership. Still, is it anything to get excited about?
South Korean politics, like politics everywhere, is local and highly personal, with an extra dose of regional bias thrown in for good measure. Did the electorate view it as such and merely vote for a familiar face on the local landscape? Probably. In short, it was more a case of Kim’s short coattails than of the electorate “turning tail.”
Those who thought the North-South summit announcement would change minds were wrong. This might have been anticipated since dealing with North Korea has never been easy and is sure to result in hardship for the South since it will be doing all the giving, with the added uncertainty of receiving anything at all in return. The situation may become less dangerous, but it is certain to become more complex and, apparently, many prefer dealing with the devil they know rather than the one they don’t.
Looking ahead, the two central concerns are whether, in the election’s aftermath, Kim Dae Jung’s drive for continued economic reform will sputter and whether the upcoming summit meeting in Pyongyang will weaken or strengthen his sunshine policy. Without a doubt, reform will be rougher, politics — both domestic and inter-Korean — tougher. This is unavoidable because there is no consensus on how much further reform should proceed or the most effective way to deal with the North. The deep divisions that currently prevail will make caution and incrementalism the order of the day.
However, no leader remains a lame duck for long, or as long as he can still lead, and Kim shows no signs of being unable to do that. For those who are already Kim partisans, the results won’t make much difference. Kim has been a polarizing political figure during his entire career — both in and out of office — and people made up their minds about him long ago. He merits high marks as a reformer, having won less than 40 percent of the vote in the last presidential election. His hold on office is firm, his stature high and his accomplishments many. He has three years to go and they should be exciting ones.
A National Assembly election is about politics, and the presidency is — or at least is supposed to be — about national leadership. So President Kim will continue to lead South Korea from the Blue House and members of the National Assembly will do what they do best — harangue each other. No change there!
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