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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Thinker and a Husband

Two Memoirs from South Korea's First Couple


Go to a review of Troubled Tiger, The Unauthorised Biography of Korea Inc.

SHORTLY AFTER HE WAS defeated in his third run for president in 1992, Kim Dae Jung left South Korea for an extended period of study at Cambridge University. It was in character for him to do so. "Throughout my life I have always wanted to pursue two things, politics and scholarship," Kim writes in a collection of autobiographical essays: A New Beginning, Kim Dae Jung Reviews His Career (University of Southern California, 228 pages, $14.95). The world knows the political Kim reasonably well. What comes through in this book is the scholarly Kim.

Kim Dae Jung is by far the most intellectual politician in Korea, probably in Asia, maybe even the world (save for Czech president Vaclav Havel). He occupied his 14 years of incarceration, either in prison or under house arrest, with extensive reading. It supplemented his formal education as a youth, which ended at high school in his home town of Mokpo. His Prison Writings (1987), presented as letters to his sons, are full of recommended reading lists drawn from Western philosophers, Chinese classics and Korean history. His doctorate is earned from, of all places, the Russian Institute of Diplomacy.

He is also the most cosmopolitan of Korea's leaders. Years in exile or study abroad brought him in contact with many of the world's leaders. ("The late Chancellor Willy Brandt advised me in 1990 when I visited him in Germany . . .") He can converse just as intelligently on the makeup of the Italian car industry as he can on the inner workings of the South Korean chaebol. If and when he confronts the challenge of Korean reunification, he can at least draw on the experience of Germany, having visited the country several times and discussed the practical problems with its leaders.

It is ironic that Kim is often portrayed as an opponent of Asian values and a defender of Western liberal democracy. True, he has debated in print with such regional proponents as Singapore senior minister Lee Kuan Yew. But Kim believes democracy is an Asian value, and he writes exhaustively on its sources, tracing the connections back to the Chinese philosopher Mencius, who first proposed the notion that kings can lose the "mandate of heaven" if they rule unwisely or tyrannically, and to other Asian antecedents.

A key to understanding the South Korean president is his faith. He became a Roman Catholic as an adult, and he defends his belief in God with intellectual arguments (citing Aristotle, Socrates, Kant and others). Certainly, his famous deliverance from a 1973 assassination attempt has a miraculous quality to it. He was strapped to a wooden plank, weights tied to his hands, just about to be thrown into the Sea of Japan. "'Please save me,' I prayed. 'I still have so much to do.' Then there seemed to be a flash. Four or five men shouted, 'It's a plane.'" That was when one of his captors whispered in his ear, "You seem to be saved now."

At this point, it is easy to think Kim Dae Jung is some kind of saint. But no one should forget that he is also a tough-as-nails leader who has survived 40 years in the rough-and-tumble world of Korean politics. He is capable of making audacious compromises and alliances to achieve his goals. In the recent presidential election, he teamed up with Kim Jong Pil, founder of the former Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which had hounded opposition figures like himself for years. It was almost as if the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng ran for president of China and picked Li Peng to be his running mate. And as the new president, Kim insisted, despite deep opposition in the legislature, on appointing his former arch enemy as prime minister, albeit in an "acting" capacity.

Lee Hee Ho, who married Kim after his first wife died, clearly saw a potential in the struggling young politician that was not discernible to her friends and relatives. "There was tremendous opposition from my family at the very thought of my marriage," she writes in her own memoir, My Love, My Country (University of Southern California, 298 pages, $10.95). In 1962, Kim hardly looked like good matrimonial material for this blue-blooded daughter of a prominent Seoul physician. Lee's family is descended from Korea's last royal dynasty.

At the time of their wedding, Kim was, as she puts it, an "unemployed ronin," curiously using the Japanese word for a samurai who has lost his master. Her husband-to-be, who had exhausted the modest fortune he earned as the owner of a small shipping company on his perennial quest for political office, was shunned by the establishment as a crypto-communist and seemingly destined only for prison, exile or even death row. Lee's book dwells mainly on the years when Kim was in jail or under house arrest.

It was, she recalls, a strange Orwellian world. The police disconnected all the telephones but one -- which they openly intercepted. "Whenever a call came in for us, the policemen simply but rudely replied: 'They are not here.'" Their youngest son, then a third-grader, made the trip to his elementary school every morning with a police officer by his side. Even the housekeeper had her own "escort" when she went out to shop for groceries.

The two memoirs, plus Prison Writings, are regrettably almost all that is available in English about the life of one of Asia's most remarkable figures. They are not self-serving in any obvious way, and Kim's book is on a higher intellectual plane than the run-of-the-mill political biography. But they suffer the natural limitations of coming from only one source. Kim's life cries out for a fuller treatment. Certainly, his tempestuous political career provides enough material for at least one thick tome. And Volume II has yet to be played out.


Trouble in the Making

How Seoul expanded its way into crisis

THIS EXAMINATION OF THE South Korean "miracle" is a timely release in light of the country's economic woes. Troubled Tiger, The Unauthorised Biography of Korea Inc. (Butterworth-Heinemann Asia, 349 pages, HK$198) is a 1997 update. First published in 1994, the book proved to be a prophetic warning of troubles ahead. The author, journalist Mark L. Clifford, was based in Seoul from 1987 to 1992. The timing of his posting was fortuitous. He arrived just as Chun Doo Hwan's regime was coming to an end, heralding a sort of glasnost in South Korea.

In tracing the country's political economy since the early 1960s, Clifford constructs his thesis -- state-led development sowed the seeds of the current crisis. The first grains were cast by military strongman Park Chung Hee. Under the system that Park established, the government would set national goals such as building steel and shipbuilding industries. The conglomerates, the chaebol, would vie to carry out the investments. Only firms selected to enter the targeted fields had access to financing. Park respected and rewarded aggression from businessmen. But he had little concern for profits or balance sheets. The result was rapid growth -- and some costly mistakes. A headlong dash into heavy industry in the late 1970s, for example, led to a severe economic crisis not unlike the current one.

It also created a unique business culture. As Clifford writes, "Korea remains less a market economy than a negotiated one." Business and government haggled over the agenda, and the banks remained powerless middlemen. Decades of "policy loans," issued at official behest to favored industries and companies, burdened the banks with mountains of bad debts. Thus hobbled, they became the Achilles heel of the South Korean economy. By the early 1990s, the system was starting to crack. Noting the chaebols' rash of aggressive expansions in the 1990s, Clifford comments: "Hyundai and Samsung know that if their massive bets in petrochemicals or semiconductors go wrong, the government will help salvage their groups." They were behaving as they did under the Park regime -- but from an immeasurably stronger bargaining position. The chaebol had become the face of Korea Inc. and the government could not allow them to fail.

But, in 1997, they did. As Clifford tells it, the debt-financed companies found that "top-line growth, with little regard for profits, is a strategy that is not working in the low-inflation, low-growth environment of the 1990s." Like the government, Korean firms felt big was beautiful. Hence the chaebol's strong push into capital-intensive industries such as shipbuilding, steel, chemicals and semiconductors. When they could, they borrowed big. But they were slow to recognize the huge risks associated with these highly cyclical industries. They were notably unsuccessful in faster growing industries requiring greater innovation and agility -- personal computers, for example.

Park's pursuit of an export-oriented heavy industry program, which coincided with world recession, had precipitated South Korea's previous major crisis in 1980. Taking control after Park's assassination, the Chun government ordered a restructuring of the economy. There was much bargaining with the members of Korea Inc., but free-market reforms were not part of the price. Big conglomerates were given problem projects to nurse back to health, and collected Brownie points for their efforts. The country managed to grow itself out of its troubles. For a while.

This time round, though, it is different. Kim Dae Jung's government will have to meet IMF conditions as markets evaporate in the Asian recession. As an elected president, Kim has nothing like the freedom to impose tough policies that a dictator like Chun had during the 1980s. Yet the only way out of South Korea's problems is to leap into a more open, market-driven economy. That route will mean "unprecedented risk . . . a painful reckoning . . . almost certainly leading to the dissolution of some of Korea's largest business groups," says Clifford. The country will require leaders with vision and courage to clear this latest hurdle. It may be too early to judge, but Kim looks like the man Korea needs. He has made all the right noises about breaking from past policies. He has proved himself to be a brave political fighter, and he is not indebted to the Korea Inc. that he will be obliged to dismantle. -- By Paul Ensor


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