[VIEWPOINT]The Kim presidencies in context

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[VIEWPOINT]The Kim presidencies in context

It has been 10 years since Korea emerged from under military regimes. With another presidential election on the horizon, we need to ponder why the two civilian governments that followed those regimes, headed by Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, lost public confidence.

The two Kims are different in their circumstances, policies and achievements. Their origins, characters and styles also differ, but one thing is the same - the pattern of change in public opinion about their regimes over time.

Like Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung was popular at his administration's initial stage, after he acted decisively to overcome the 1997-98 foreign exchange crisis and put dramatic reforms in place. His popularity peaked during the inter-Korean summit in 2000. But that popularity has been buried under scandal and rumors of scandal. The public trust in Mr. Kim that bolstered his reform efforts has collapsed and the public is now more interested in the investigation and punishment of corruption and bribery. Mr. Kim, near the end of his term, has lost public confidence just as former President Kim Young-sam did five years ago.

Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung have had a common theme, although they were by no means identical. That theme is the key to understanding why the patterns of change in public sentiment toward the two administrations were so similar. The two Kims were both leaders in the struggle for democracy throughout their lives and finally became president after the military regimes were driven from office. That history of struggle for democracy is admirable in both men, but it could have also raised obstacles to running a successful political administration.

First, their careers gave them no chance to learn or practice administering any kind of government or organization. The two Kims were rejected by the military regimes, and so had no chance to assemble a group of administrators they could call on if they came into power, or to learn the details of government management. When the two Kims each came into power, they were short of officials to work with, so they had to name to office even people who had oppressed them. They could not escape mistakes in this trial-and-error process of choosing personnel.

Second, fellow democracy advocates were a burden. At the initial stages of the administrations, those activists could resist the intoxication of power, but it is difficult for persons who were out in the political night for so long to resist those temptations indefinitely. There are also always camp-followers of any leader who want to exploit their connections for their own gain. The military regimes had monopolized power for a long time, and society became corrupt. It was futile to expect corruption to be held off.

Third, the Kims put too much confidence in the public. Unlike the military regimes, civilian governments cannot make decisions arbitrarily, but this also demands changes in public attitudes. Democracy demands opinion leaders who are not unconditional critics of the government but who can set a new precedent by criticizing when necessary and praising when deserved. The "civilian government" of Kim Young-sam and the "people's government" of Kim Dae-jung expected that. But past habits are not easily changed. Intellectuals focused on censure of government policies without laying out alternatives, just as they did in the past. Critics did not try to stand in the administrations' shoes; they could not make the intellectual leap from "Overthrow the dictator!" to "Stabilize our democratic administration!" The government's bad image under the military regime carried over into the civilian ones.

The military regimes were in power for 32 years, a little less than Japanese colonial rule. Many customs of the military regime period are still intact, and because they could not overcome those old habits and ways of thinking, the two Kims were just incomplete civilian presidents.

But they were not failures. The corruption in government is depressing, but at least it is now revealed and punished. In the past, the public knew nothing about secret presidential funds of hundreds of billions of won.

Civilian governments are obviously superior to the military regimes. But we still have a long and rough way to go.


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The writer is CEO at Korean Enterprise Institute.

by Lee Yoon-jae

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