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REVIEW & OUTLOOK ( Editorial )
President-elect Kim Dae Jung , a bona fide martyr to the cause of democracy, has a natural following among Korean leftists, workers, students and other traditionally aggrieved consumers of populist rhetoric. Yet his initial steps show that in recent years the former political prisoner has been out and about the real world.
The election Mr. Kim just won was about much more than righting old wrongs, especially given Koreas perilous economic state. During the campaign he suggested that he would seek to renegotiate the terms of a $57 million IMF bailout. Hes also carrying some scary baggage in the shape of promises to boost the growth rate and avoid any layoffs during his first six months in office. Since his election, however, hes begun talking less like a populist and more like a statesman.
As president-elect, Mr. Kim now tells the world that his administration will implement "fully" the IMF agreement. He frankly told the Korean people that the pain they face is "[O]ur fault. Korean companies borrowed too much for loans, and the government lied about its foreign reserves." He also pointed to a new direction with the announcement that Korea has hired the firms of Goldman Sachs and Salomon Smith Barney for economic advice, a potential counterweight to both xenophobia among Koreans and miscues by IMF sages.
While the role of the private investment bankers is not fully defined, we do have some idea of what they will be telling Mr. Kim. Roy Ramos, who heads Asian banking research for Goldman, wrote last month with senior equity strategist Chunsoo Lim in the Asian Wall Street Journal. They suggested: "the government must stop intervening in bank credit decisions. Prudential norms must be strengthened. Loan losses must be fully recognized and provisioned against. . . While consumer depositors will of course have to be protected, fundamentally insolvent banks must be absorbed or, failing that allowed to fail. Remaining banks must recapitalize back to a healthy level . . . offshore investors including foreign banks, must be allowed in."
In dealing with Koreas chaebol conglomerates, Mr. Kims status as an outsider should be an advantage. As Koreas economy has matured, the former engines of growth -- with their unlimited access to government-directed funds and hidden networks of cross-holdings -- have become its most obvious problem. Fred Hu, Goldmans executive director for Asia economic research, also noted that in 1996 Koreas top 49 chaebol had sales accounting for 97% of Koreas GDP, but profits of just $65 million. If you include the failed giant Hanbo, there was a net loss.
If the going gets tough, the Korean Federation of Industries can be expected to call on its strange bedfellows, the unions, to resist painful change. But the new president owes the former nothing, and with the latter his reputation as a friend of the working man may buy him room for maneuver.
On the political side, Mr. Kim took another major stride forward when he agreed to pardons for former presidents Roh Tae-Woo and Chun Doo-Hwan -- who managed Koreas transition to democracy, but were tried and convicted in 1995 on an assortment of charges. As generals they were involved in the 1979 military coup and subsequent massacre in Kwangju; Mr. Kim was falsely charged with fomenting the uprising and sentenced to death, before the United States intervened to rescue him. By keeping an old promise to end the cycle of retribution with the release of the two generals, scheduled for today, Mr. Kim will have begun the long process of gaining the confidence of the 60% of Koreans who did not vote for him. That is especially important given his promise to shift Seouls approach to North Korea, bound to cause unease among many citizens whove been told for years that Mr. Kim is "soft" on Pyongyang.
Victory for the former dissident, like the recent first-time opposition win in Taiwans municipal elections, is a sign that Asians are beginning to feel confident enough to break the old mold. Its still possible the new president will allow himself to be distracted from tackling the main business of restructuring the South Korean economy. But his first steps give reason to hope that Kim Dae Jung will prove the right man for the times.