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Opposition boycott shadows South Korea's new president

Kim Dae-jung
Kim Dae-jung takes his oath

Kim Dae-jung promises democracy, market economy

February 25, 1998
Web posted at: 5:27 a.m. EST (1027 GMT)

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- On a festive, sunny day in National Assembly Plaza, Kim Dae-jung was sworn in as South Korea's new president Wednesday and promptly extended an olive branch to North Korea while also promising to nurture democracy and a market economy in his troubled country.

But Kim's honeymoon proved short-lived when a few hours later the majority opposition party declared a boycott of a scheduled National Assembly vote on the president's nominee for prime minister.

"We have said we wanted a figure with no tainted background as prime minister," said Maeng Hyung-kyu, chief spokesman for the Grand National Party.

President Kim on Monday nominated his political coalition partner Kim Jong-pil, the founding head of an intelligence agency that the president said once tried to kill him.

 Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil
President Kim Dae-jung (R) with his nominee for prime minister, Kim Jong-pil   

Kim Jong-pil, 72, a retired army colonel, played a pivotal role in the 1961 coup that brought General Park Chung Hee to power and served as his right-hand man until the dictator's assassination in 1979.

Kim Dae-jung's National Congress for New Politics (NCNP) said it was disappointed.

"The new government has just begun its first day. It is very sad to see the Grand National Party disrupting the whole nation's affairs when the country was seized by an economic crisis," an NCNP spokesman said.

The GNP announced its boycott despite a plea for cooperation by Kim Dae-jung in his inaugural address.

"Today is a proud day when a democratic transition of power is taking place on this soil for the first time," said Kim.

Once persecuted as a dissident, Kim is the first member of the political opposition elected president since South Korea became a country in 1948.

Kim said in his speech that he would be agreeable to a summit with North Korea, and proposed an exchange of special envoys to strengthen ties and end the state of war that technically still exists between the two countries.

"I am ready to agree to a summit meeting, if North Korea wants," Kim said. "I hope that interaction between the South and North will expand in many fields based."

Inauguration
The plaza outside of the National Assembly in Seoul

Kim also said that his country would not be "parsimonious in extending food aid to North Korea from the government and private organizations through reasonable means." North Korea is suffering from widespread food shortages.

Nearly 40,000 people attended the inauguration ceremony while thousands more watched outside the plaza on huge television screens trucked into place so that as many people as possible could watch the veteran pro-democracy campaigner, elected last December after decades of battling strong-man rule, take the oath.

Democracy, market economy 'two sides of a coin'

Flags lined the streets of South Korea's capital and the mood on a plaza in front of the National Assembly was festive and hopeful. It was marked by a performance by an opera singer, the firing of artillery guns and the release of 1,500 doves.

Dignitaries included former Philippine president Corazon Aquino, several former Japanese prime ministers, International Olympic Committee head Juan Antonio Samaranch, U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, pop star Michael Jackson and international financier George Soros.

Most notable among the guests, however, were two of Kim's predecessors -- Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. Chun and Roh, ex-army generals, who seized power in a 1979 coup, arrested Kim Dae-jung on sedition charges and condemned him to death.

He was spared after intervention by the United States, but spent 15 years in prison, exile and house arrest and survived what he believes were three assassination attempts.

But the talk in the plaza Wednesday, and on the morning radio shows, was that Kim would be able to repair the country's staggering economy.

"I just hope Kim Dae-jung can fix the economy," said Kim Jae-chul, a construction worker Chonju.

The 74-year-old Kim has vowed to restructure the country's economy and reform its authoritarian political institutions. And he said Wednesday that his government will push democracy and economic development together.

"Democracy and the market economy are two sides of a coin or two wheels of a cart," he said during his speech.

"Nations, on the other hand, that have rejected democracy and accepted only a market economy have ended up suffering disastrous setbacks, as illustrated by Nazi Germany and militarist Japan.

"These two countries, too, accepted both democracy and a market economy after the second world war and have come to enjoy the freedom and prosperity they have today."

'On the brink of disaster'

Kim enters office on the heels of an economic debacle that forced South Korea, the world's 11th largest economy, to accept a humiliating $58 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the painful reforms that come with it.

Doves
1,500 doves were released after Kim took his oath

"We are faced with a crisis that could bankrupt our country," Kim said. "It, indeed, is a stupefying situation we find ourselves in.

"Consumer prices and unemployment will rise this year. Incomes will drop and an increasing number of companies will go bankrupt. All of us are being asked to shed sweat and tears now."

Kim blamed the situation on business and government leaders who "were tainted by a collusive link between politics and business and by government-directed banking practices....

"I cannot help but feel limitless pain and anger when I think of you, the innocent citizens, who are bearing the brunt of the suffering over the consequences of the wrong-doing committed by those in leadership positions."

Kim said, however, that he would not retaliate against those responsible, and appealed to his political opponents to work with him in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation to bring about change.

"I earnestly appeal to the opposition, which is the majority party in the National Assembly," he said. "We will never be able to overcome today's crisis without cooperation from you.

"In return, you must help me if only for this one year when the nation is standing on the brink of disaster."

Kim urged to free political prisoners

Kim said ties with North Korea would be based on three principles: Seoul would not tolerate armed provocation of any kind; it would not undermine or absorb North Korea; and it would actively pursue reconciliation and cooperation between the South and North.

Kim has already proposed a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and indicated that his government would push to expand economic and other exchanges with the North.

Amnesty International urged Kim Dae-jung on Tuesday to release all prisoners of conscience, amend the National Security Law and reform the Agency for National Security Planning, the former Korean Central Intelligence Agency.

Kim himself was one of Amnesty's "prisoners of conscience" in the 1970s and 1980s when he spent long periods in jail or under house arrest for opposing repressive military rule.

Past South Korean governments have denied holding any political prisoners, but church and other human rights groups claim about 560 people remain in prison for labor, anti-government and other political protests.

Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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