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  • Korea: Triumph Amid Turmoil
  • David I. Steinberg (bio)

On 18 December 1997, veteran democratic dissident Kim Dae Jung of the National Congress for New Politics won a razor-thin plurality victory in his campaign to become president of the Republic of Korea. The identity of the winner—who would get to serve one nonrenewable five-year term—was in doubt until the very last popular-vote tallies, which showed Kim edging out the establishment candidate, Lee Hoi Chang of the Grand National Party, by 40.3 to 38.7 percent. Kim’s winning margin in this, his fourth try for the presidency, was 1.6 percent—one of the narrowest in Korean history, representing 390,000 votes out of about 26 million cast. A young third-party candidate, 49-year-old Governor Rhee In Je of Kyonggi Province, came in third with 19.2 percent, though he failed to carry any of Korea’s nine provinces or six self-governing metropolitan areas.

Despite the mood of national despair and humiliation generated by a severe economic crisis, the balloting was the cleanest and most transparent since direct election of the president began in 1987. For the first time, television played a prominent role, superseding the costly mass rallies of the past and allowing candidates to debate and confront one another before nationwide audiences. There hung about the race a sense of drama that might have seemed too far-fetched for the theater. The victor’s long ordeal—his abduction, imprisonment, and house arrest and his survival of assassination attempts and a death sentence—is the stuff of improbable fiction. To add to the irony, Kim owed his [End Page 76] triumph to an alliance of circumstance that he forged with his longtime foe Kim Jong Pil, the founder of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), the architect of much of Kim Dae Jung’s early torment.

Many issues affected the outcome of the race. The economic crisis forced subservience to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in internal fiscal management—some Koreans spoke of an “IMF trusteeship”—at a time of heightened Korean nationalism. Other factors included disaffection with the Kim Young Sam administration’s imperial style, cronyism, and mercurial policies toward North Korea; factionalism within the ruling party; growing economic malaise; rabid regionalism; charges of draft-dodging swirling around Lee Hoi Chang’s sons; and Kim Dae Jung’s controversial alliance with Kim Jong Pil. The basic message of Rhee In Je was that Korea needed a generational changing of the guard to make way for new and more vigorous leadership, while Lee Hoi Chang cited to the need for stability. Both these appeals failed, however. In the end, it was more a case of the establishment losing the election than of Kim Dae Jung winning it.

The Candidates

The December 1997 presidential election and its immediate aftermath should be considered a national triumph in a trough of despondency over the economic debacle and the extensive and rigorous conditions attached to the IMF bailout. Despite campaign mudslinging and charges of irregularities, the unprecedented transparency of the electoral process marked a milestone in Korea’s political coming of age. After all the votes were counted, there were graceful statements of conciliation by all parties. The election was a milestone in Korean political development; it marked the first time in Korean history that a peaceful transfer of power took place between political parties through the electoral process. Unique in Korea, such an occurrence is also rare anywhere in Asia.

The presidential race began with seven contenders—there were no tickets because Korea has no vice-presidency—but only the top three had any real prospect of winning. Lee Hoi Chang represented the continuity of power, if not personalities. His Grand National Party was simply incumbent president Kim Young Sam’s New Korea Party under a fresh name, adopted as part of an effort to escape the opprobrium attached to the outgoing administration. A jurist and bureaucrat with a clean record, Lee had served briefly as prime minister under Kim Young Sam in 1993, but resigned over policy differences. Although somewhat wooden on television, he symbolized probity in an era noted for its corruption...

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pp. 76-90
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