The Words of the Betancourt Family

Northeast Asia Peace And Security Network

Antonio Betancourt
December 22, 1997

Special Report

The following special report on the ROK presidential election was prepared by Antonio Betancourt, Executive Director, Summit Council for World Peace, and Dr. Mark P. Barry, Research Fellow. The Summit Council is an association of former heads of state and government, located at 3600 New York Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. NAPSNet presents the report as received.

The Election of Kim Dae Jung, the American Reaction, and Future Inter-Korean Relations - An Assessment by the Summit Council for World Peace December 22, 1997

On December 18, 1997, the Korean people elected for the first time in 50 years an opposition figure as president. Kim won by 40.3% of the vote, versus 38.7% for his main opponent, Lee Hoi Chang. This mandate is comparable to the past two elections in 1992 and 1987. However, Kim's National Congress for New Politics party will be in the minority in the 299-seat National Assembly. The NCNP currently has 78 seats and its ally, the United Liberal Democrats (ULD) has only 43 seats. Clearly, Kim will attempt to lure opposition Grand National Party members to the NCNP to more effectively govern. Kim's success on a fundamental level was due to the refusal of Rhee In Je, candidate of the New People's Party, to withdraw from the race; Rhee took a large number of votes away from Lee that cost him the election. Secondly, Kim significantly benefited from his alliance with Kim Jong Pil and the ULD, as he made a stronger showing in regions of the ULD's traditional power base than ever before. Kim Dae Jung also benefited from television debates where viewers judged him to be an eloquent speaker. Finally, in this fourth run for the presidency, he was able to obtain increasing support as a centrist; as one analyst commented, having finally achieved his quest, Kim is no longer a politician but a statesman who has to govern. To govern well, he has to get the support of the business community, the ruling power elite, the media and of the middle class. A crucial first step is his joint decision with President Kim Young Sam to give a Christmas amnesty to former presidents Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan, an action that implicitly protects the current President, but which also demonstrates Kim Dae Jung's strong sense of justice.

Kim is expected to appoint a bipartisan cabinet with Kim Jong Pil as prime minister shortly after his inauguration on February 25, 1998. Kim has spoken less often about, but not totally abandoned, his earlier promise to hold a national referendum mid-term to alter the form of government from a presidential to parliamentary cabinet system - this the price of his alliance with the ULD. According to the Constitution, the form of government cannot be changed without a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, something Kim cannot muster without the NCNP first becoming the majority party. Such a change in governmental system, of course, raises the question of whether Kim would step down if there were no longer a presidency. Related as well is the question of whether Kim can remain in good health at age 74; during the campaign, there were unproven but persistent rumors of declining health, including of the alleged onset of Alzheimer's disease.

While Kim's assuming office comes at a time of national embarrassment at the bailout of the economy by the International Monetary Fund, it may be a blessing in disguise. It will be easier for Kim to launch major economic reforms required by the IMF, which otherwise would meet stiff resistance. Most analysts expect South Korea to make a full economic recovery by 1999, so the financial crisis is seen as rather temporary. In fact, Kim claims that by 2015, Korea will be among the five top economic powers in the world. Moreover, his very election symbolizes the end of the old order of Korean politics, allowing what he calls genuine "participatory democracy" to take root in South Korea.

Reaction of the United States

The day after his election victory, Kim Dae Jung spoke with President Clinton over the phone. Clinton extended his congratulations, pledged to continue the U.S.-ROK strategic partnership, and said he was proud of Korea's impressive exercise in democracy. The White House took note of Kim's strong (if belated) endorsement of the IMF bailout package. Unique among all of the candidates, Kim has a long involvement with the United States, extensive contacts among American scholars and opinion leaders, and a good command of English. He also lived in the U.S. for several years while in exile in the 1970s and 1980s, and spent time in residence at Harvard University. More importantly, the U.S. also saved his life twice, in 1973 and in 1980. One cannot imagine a stronger bond between Kim and the U.S. From a policy perspective, privately we believe the Clinton administration is relieved that Kim was elected, knowing that friction between the U.S. and ROK will likely be greatly reduced, and Kim is certain to take a more aggressive approach in promoting inter-Korean relations, so that U.S. policy toward the North is not held hostage to Seoul's dictates. Kim has also said that he recently asked President Clinton to persuade North Korea to return to the table for resumption of North-South dialogue. There is a possibility Kim will journey to the U.S. to meet with Clinton and the IMF even before his inauguration.

Relations with North Korea

North Korea has yet to officially comment on Kim's election, but it is safe to conclude that the North sees in Kim the opportunity to end the prolonged stalemate in inter-Korean relations that endured under the Kim Young Sam government. Kim blames his predecessor for an inconsistent, incoherent northern policy that was simply as a tool of domestic politics; in the end, Kim Young Sam merely maintained the status quo. Of all the presidential candidates, Kim had the most defined and articulate northern policy. Kim has reiterated his belief that the two Koreas must revert to the Basic Agreement ("Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation") they signed in December 1991; it is a document that is a realistic basis by which to proceed in building relations. In an interview, he recently stated, "We need to actively manage and take the initiative in securing peace and stability on the peninsula by drawing the North into openness and reform." He maintained his belief in the relevancy of his three-stage reunification formula, which he introduced several years ago [the Summit Council will issue a separate analysis of Kim's unification plan shortly], as the best approach, but noted that South Korea must be prepared even for a sudden North Korean collapse. As President, he will de-link North Korean participation in Four Power Peace talks and ROK food aid. He prefers to systematically give aid through inter-Korean talks because food aid to the North requires immediate policy action.

Upon resumption of inter-Korean dialogue, Kim will certainly call for a summit meeting, if Kim Jong Il does not do so first. Having already assumed the post of party general secretary in October, Kim Jong Il is expected to become DPRK President in the very near future, possibly as early as December 24, the anniversary of the birth of his mother. Thus, Kim Jong Il will have the requisite title to meet with Kim Dae Jung anytime after February 25.

Kim Dae Jung announced three principles behind his northern policy: 1. Gradual and peaceful integration and unification of the two Koreas through mutual recognition; 2. Efforts to safeguard stability are necessary to ensure deterrence of potential North Korean provocations, and this may require creative initiatives; 3. A "Sunshine Policy" is needed to gently lead the North towards openness and reforms. Demonstrate to the North the value of reforms and openness through bold and active assistance. Part of this should be generous and uninterrupted provision of food assistance, assistance of agricultural reform, and economic cooperation, including investment. Kim stresses that North Korea must be convinced that a decision to have constructive relations with South Korea and the international community will result in practical benefits for itself.

The first formal meeting of the Four Power Peace talks finally took place on December 9-10 between the U.S., China, and the two Koreas. Intersessional consultations will take place in Beijing in mid-February to prepare for the next plenary session scheduled for March 16 in Geneva. While the U.S. does not see a time limit to the talks duration, it acknowledges they will likely take several years to reach agreement on a peace treaty. Kim Dae Jung has stated that the core of the peace talks is inter-Korean dialogue, with the U.S. and China acting as guarantors. Kim's election and Kim Jong Il's likely assumption of the presidency greatly increase the chances that the Four Power Peace talks will succeed on the foundation of a new-found inter-Korean basis for dialogue. As a byproduct of these new developments, it is very possible that liaison offices could open next year in Pyongyang and Washington, as called for in the 1994 Agreed Framework, and that DPRK-Japan normalization talks will progress swiftly. The construction of the two light-water reactors in North Korea by KEDO is not expected to be affected by the current financial crisis in the ROK, although discussions over cost-sharing between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington will continue.

The North Korean food crisis will likely receive even greater attention from the international community, led by the U.S., than in 1997, with the added possibility of large food shipments being sent directly from the South. The United Nations World Food Program believes that North Korea's 1997 harvest will at best last through March 1998, and that emergency food deliveries will have to be dispatched beforehand to arrive in time to prevent the outbreak of full-fledged famine. No one knows how many have died from malnutrition in North Korea, but it would not be surprising if the number is at least in the hundreds of thousands, if not greater, judging from anecdotal evidence from refugees and relief workers.

Finally, American NGOs have been waiting for years for the opportunity to work together with the ROK government in a constructive manner in providing humanitarian assistance to the DPRK as well as to facilitate inter-Korean dialogue, communication and understanding. The arrival of the Kim Dae Jung era in South Korean politics appears to now provide that opportunity so that NGOs can make meaningful contributions that will genuinely be of utility to the ROK's northern policy.

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