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SEPTEMBER 15, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 36 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Meanwhile, in the South . . .
All is not well for Kim Dae Jung at home
By LAXMI NAKARMI Seoul

One would think that a leader who has brought about a historic dEtente with an arch-enemy would be cheered and feted by his people. Instead, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has been beset by political deadlock and growing public discontent. While the warming of ties between North and South Korea has been steaming ahead, Kim has found the going at home decidedly less smooth.

Part of the reason is that, after the emotional euphoria of the summit and the family reunions, South Koreans have been coming down to earth with a bump. During the reunions, they were reminded of the nature of the Pyongyang regime when their North Korean relatives parroted the line that the occasion was due to "the great grace of the general [Kim Jong Il]." The repatriation of former North Korean spies — a no-strings-attached expression of goodwill from Seoul to Pyongyang — has had many asking why their government did not demand the reciprocal release of South Koreans in the North. Some have muttered that President Kim is more concerned about the welfare of enemy spies than that of his own people.

"What about our prisoners-of-war who are still alive in the North?" says chairman Lee Hoi Chang of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP). "There are also South Korean fishermen and others who were abducted by North Korea." On Sept. 5, the Ministry of Defense revealed that 351 PoWs were believed to be still alive in the North. President Kim has promised to press the North on the issue, but there has yet to be any sign of reciprocity from Pyongyang, whose line is that there are no South Korean PoWs being held against their will in the North.

Another issue to crop up is the constitutionality of Seoul's interaction with Pyongyang. Former president Kim Young Sam recently criticized Kim Dae Jung for partially endorsing North Korea's unification formula, a confederation-based model that goes against the South Korean Constitution's requirement that unification be based on the principles of liberal democracy. Technically, even the Pyongyang government itself is illegitimate in the eyes of the charter. Constitutional law expert Im Kwang Kyu notes: "The South Korean Constitution defines the Republic of Korea as the land that includes both Koreas and the North Korean government as an illegal entity forcefully occupying part of the Republic of Korea." But he concedes: "We have no choice but to accept North Korea's as the de facto government."

There is now talk of amending the Constitution to make President Kim's dealings legally sound. But Im remains unhappy at the way the government has handled the issue. "We, the constitutional lawyers, think that the government is much too lenient and has a very soft attitude toward defending the Constitution," he says.

On the political front, the situation has been marked by total paralysis. The April general elections were followed by a brief honeymoon period between President Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) and the GNP, both of whom agreed to observe the "politics of mutual survival." But the two main parties have since reverted to a state of hostility. Various MDP officials have been mired in charges ranging from election-law violations to corruption, and the GNP has been quick to stoke the fires. One prominent victim has been former education minister Song Ja, who was forced to resign following allegations of questionable financial dealings, plagiarism and dual nationality.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly has been shut down because the MDP's railroading of a legislative amendment led to a boycott by the GNP. The deadlock means that no bills are being passed and government action has ground to a halt. Tens of thousands of victims of a major fire early this summer are waiting for government compensation that can be provided to them only after the passing of a special law. An ongoing doctors' strike shows little sign of being resolved.

The country's economic recovery is also at stake. The Financial Supervisory Commission is waiting for a bill to be passed that would allow it to form a holding company to clean up problem banks; meanwhile, the Korea Asset Management Company needs a new law in order to raise more funds to purchase non-performing loans. According to a parliamentary clerk, there are over a thousand bills languishing before the National Assembly. "We hoped that this National Assembly would be different from those of the past," sighs Kim Jung Hee, a volunteer worker with a civic action group.

GNP spokesman Kwon Chul Hyun charges: "President Kim is too engrossed in pleasing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and has no interest in helping the people affected by his failed restructuring programs." Perhaps the GNP has no right to accuse the president of inaction, given its own role in the political deadlock. But as public discontent builds, there are no doubt many who would agree with the first half of the statement.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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