[NOTEBOOK]Is President Kim a Benevolent Monarch?

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[NOTEBOOK]Is President Kim a Benevolent Monarch?

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was thought of in a number of lights. He was leader of the minority reformists, revolutionary with conviction, terminator of the Cold War, romantic revolutionary and proponent of dialogue with the West. As the reforms and policies he pushed for after he took power as a reformist of the Communist Party changed and were adapted with the passage of time, his perceived role changed with them.

The former Soviet leader had another moniker: "enlightened absolute monarch." He got that one while implementing perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness) as a new ideology and methodology for rescuing the Soviet Union during the last years of Communist rule.

During that time, the myth of "too big to fail" took firm hold in the Soviet Union. Although the authority of the Communist Party weakened, it was still too early to adopt Western-style party politics.

Mr. Gorbachev, as an enlightened general secretary, attempted to renovate the old, anachronistic Soviet Union and make it fit to exchange and communicate with contemporary Europe and the rest of the world.

Reformist groups praised Mr. Gorbachev as the successor of previous reform-minded emperor and empress, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. The conservatives called him a dangerous adventurer, who depended on foreign powers and divided Soviet society.

The Soviet Union switched from an absolute monarchy under the czar to another totalitarian system following the Russian Revolution without experiencing a civil society. In that country, Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost were adventuristic and populistic, but also were almost the only options for a reform-minded leader to take at a time when there were no civil groups.

The West supported his policies with great enthusiasm, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in promoting world peace through perestroika and glasnost.

However, as time went on it became evident that the creed and policies of the enlightened general secretary had their own limits. Finally, he became a captive of the reforms he had initiated, and had no choice but to hand over the historic task to a more radical leader, Boris Yeltsin.

Although many Koreans are feeling reform fatigue and are less fervent about the "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea, President Kim Dae-jung is stubbornly pushing his reform drive, leading some people to consider him the next enlightened absolute monarch.

At a small gathering at the residence of a foreign ambassador in Korea, the topic of conversation was the possible visit by Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, to Seoul, and South Koreans' support of the Kim Dae-jung administration's "sunshine policy."

Some gave credit to President Kim for firm belief in his policies despite growing reform fatigue and skepticism. Others pointed out that the goals of his reforms were good but that he was now faced with a crisis as he had lost popularity during the course of his reforms.

Others argued that what South Korea, the Soviet Union and Europe's absolute monarchies have in common was that their leaders of reform were part of an elite with firm convictions and strong power, and that they challenged established values and world views. Just as the reform policies of enlightened monarchs were created by a temporary balance of power between the emerging bourgeoisie and the waning feudal class, support for President Kim's reform policies may have resulted from a temporary balance between a new power growing from within Korean society and groups that have dominated over the past 50 years.

History has witnessed a lot of enlightened monarchs. It remains to be seen which example President Kim will follow.


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The writer is international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Seok-hwan

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