SEOUL — South Korean President Kim Dae Jung returns from Norway and Sweden this week with his Nobel Prize in hand, having secured his place on the world stage. But at home, he faces a nation deeply divided over his “sunshine policy,” deeply troubled over its economic prospects and enveloped in a social malaise stemming seemingly endless corruption and political scandals.
As pre-eminent statesmen of their times, both former French President Charles de Gaulle and Kim stand astride the world as giants, the former with his vision of a Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals;” the latter with his vision of East Asia from “Singapore to Siberia” and a Korean Peninsula at peace with itself for the first time in more than a century. It is ironic that four decades later, judging from the outcome of the Nice summit, Europe is still struggling to implement that vision of unity; The two Koreas are beginning the journey down the path Kim envisioned.
Both men rallied their nations in crisis: De Gaulle in 1940 after the fall of France, catapulting his way to power after its liberation; Kim, after the 1997 economic crisis, paving the way toward inter-Korean reconciliation with his sunshine policy that culminated in last summer’s historic North-South summit. De Gaulle never won a Nobel Peace Prize but he put his stamp on history in a different way as a warrior-leader during a time of peril for his country and humankind.
Finally, in exercising power and demonstrating leadership, both dealt with nearly unresolvable foreign-policy problems. De Gaulle could never convince diehard French colonists that turning his back on a French Algeria was correct. Indeed, he had to face down a military putsch to prevail. Similarly, Kim will never be able to convince South Korean conservatives that reconciling with the North is the right course or that his policy is even on course without reciprocity, which Pyongyang does not seem inclined to grant, at least not for the moment. While the French right attempted a putsch, but was repulsed, South Korea’s right anxiously awaits the next election, which is two years away.
However, recent polls indicate that the South Korean public’s attention is less focused on the peace process with the North than riveted on incomplete economic reform and corporate restructuring, for which Kim has received mixed reviews, possibly foreshadowing another steep economic downturn.
In this regard, it is well to remember that it was not foreign policy but domestic policy that brought de Gaulle down three decades ago — a neglect of the economy coupled with an aloof and imperious attitude. While Kim has been a bold and visionary statesman, he has also been slow and overly timid in his efforts at financial reform and corporate restructuring. His tripartite committee has floundered; its labor contingent has left the fold. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been squandered to recapitalize banks that continue to minister to companies on life support when they should be allowed to exit the market. Nor has he stood his ground with the “chaebol” conglomerates for fear of unleashing economic Armageddon.
Make no mistake about it. The economy is Kim’s Achilles heel. He can go down with the ship or save it, depending on the political will and skill he can muster.
Noteworthy as well is De Gaulle’s crisis of legitimacy, which stemmed from social unrest and economic turmoil; the debt of gratitude owed by the French people could not save him. The South Korean people owe Kim a similar debt in staving off economic collapse and reaching out to the North. And although South Korea is enough of a democracy to allow Kim to complete his term, that will be insufficient to save him from becoming a lame duck in his last two years unless he delivers economic stability.
There are also parallels in terms of style. Both men may be viewed as strong leaders: de Gaulle the austere, authoritarian, Kim the Confucian elder statesman. Nor is there much doubt that advisers are there less to advise (more to be seen, rather than heard), providing information, not advice, and loyalty is the cardinal virtue. Both also have a penchant for engaging in frequent, even excessive, changes of ministerial portfolios.
At the same time, there are striking differences, and they may even outweigh the similarities. De Gaulle left a legacy and an heir; Kim thus far has neither. Gaullism as a political movement survived its architect, and a heir, Georges Pompidou, succeeded the general. Three decades later, President Jacques Chirac maintains the line of succession.
Conversely, Kim can claim no political movement and has no heir apparent. The free-for-all nature of South Korean politics that has no use for party discipline is a departure from the Western mold.
Indeed, no South Korean leader has emerged from the presidency unscathed in the history of the republic. One — Park Chung Hee — was assassinated, three — Syngman Rhee, Yun Po Sun and Choi Kyu-hah — were driven from power by revolutions, coups or conspiracies, two — military leaders Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan — were imprisoned and one — Kim Young Sam — lost his reputation due to incompetence. Kim is the seventh and it will take more than a little luck to preserve his legacy, the Nobel Prize notwithstanding.
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