- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

For supporters of democracy in South Korea, the last years of the 20th century were a time of hope. The evolution of democracy in that country was definitely moving in the right direction. Although in the years immediately following the Korean War, the office of president traditionally was occupied by the strongest of the country's military elite, a civilian president was elected for the first time in late 1992.
But all these presidents had come from the same ruling political party. That was why, in December 1997, the people of South Korea had great expectations when a presidential candidate, Kim Dae-jung, was elected who was not only a civilian but also a member of the opposition party.
Hopes were raised by Mr. Kim's election for he was well known as a lifelong human-rights activist. His opposition to South Korean military rule had even brought him very close to death at one point in his life. While in Japan, he was kidnapped by Korean intelligence agents who took him out to sea where he was to be executed and his body dumped overboard. The future president was saved only by the last-minute intervention of a high-ranking member of the Reagan administration, who learned of the plot as it was unfolding.
Based on Mr. Kim's background and firsthand experiences, one would have expected him to continue the push for true democracy in South Korea.
Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case. Mr. Kim's presidency, particularly in recent months, seems to have reversed the evolutionary march to true democracy in South Korea.
Now into the fourth year of a constitutionally mandated single five-year term, Mr. Kim is taking a beating in the polls. His popularity is at an all time low. The economy, in bad repair when he started his presidency, remains there today. His "Sunshine Policy," by which he has sought to reduce tensions with North Korea, has little substance to show for its efforts, outside of a Nobel Peace Prize for Mr. Kim.
The failure of his presidency has provided much negative material for a number of domestic newspapers. In an effort to silence his media critics, he has done something that would make North Korea's strongman Kim Jong-il proud of him. He has intimidated the press by initiating a politically motivated tax evasion probe of 23 media companies, most of which, coincidentally, have been very critical of him.
The bank accounts of editors and reporters unfriendly to Mr. Kim are being examined by the National Tax Service — South Korea's equivalent of our IRS.
The NTS has devoted more than half its personnel resources to this investigation, paving the way for arrest warrants to be issued for many members of the media. Additionally, Mr. Kim is seeking to revise the law on news publications in an effort to deny shareholders any say over what management does.
The intimidation has been effective. Most news publications have toned down their criticism as editors and reporters fear criminal charges for tax evasion may be levied against them. It has succeeded in quashing one story about the president's helicopter that would have been especially embarrassing for Mr. Kim.
The helicopters used to ferry the South Korean president around the country are somewhat aged. But the country's dire economic situation made acquisition of a new generation helicopter a luxury Seoul could ill afford.
The presidential helicopter in use, the French-made AS-322t, mysteriously began to experience problems, resulting in its grounding and the issuance of an order for a new generation presidential aircraft. Only recently was it learned what caused the groundings. Apparently, Mr. Kim's personal bodyguard — a man, it turns out, with a criminal record — was involved in pressuring AS-322t pilots into faking problems with the aircraft. He did so to justify acquisition of a new generation presidential helicopter — the British-made EH-101. Its manufacturer had a representation agreement with an associate of the bodyguard. This story has not appeared in the Korean press for fear of retribution.
Sensing he is now in the twilight of his political career, Mr. Kim is striving, despite the lack of success he has experienced with his Sunshine Policy, to salvage some sort of a legacy for himself by pushing strongly for a breakthrough with North Korea. It is feared Mr. Kim wants this breakthrough, in the form of a peace declaration, at any cost. His reason for doing so appears to have been clarified by a classified ruling party document now made public that indicates he sees such a breakthrough as providing "a fuse for constitutional change" — i.e., a basis for changing the country's constitution either to allow Mr. Kim to run again or, at a minimum, to enable his party to otherwise retain power. Mr. Kim claims the document is fraudulent.
The South Korean president has not limited his efforts to salvage a legacy for himself to silencing his press critics. He has also found it necessary to silence North Korean defector, Hwang Jong-yop. Several years ago, while in Beijing, Mr. Hwang sought asylum in South Korea. As U.S. congressmen have now started to have serious reservations about Mr. Kim's Sunshine Policy, some have sought to bring Mr. Hwang before Congress to testify as to his insights about the North. Mr. Kim has not allowed Mr. Hwang to do so.
Critics believe this is because Mr. Kim fears Mr. Hwang may embarrass him in one of two ways: by trying to seek asylum in the United States or by sharing information with Congress suggesting that certain high-level members of Mr. Kim's party had, at some point, secretly cooperated with Pyongyang. If true, such an allegation would explain why the Sunshine Policy has been such a one-way street where Seoul has given up so much and Pyongyang so little. Held in protective custody in Seoul, Mr. Hwang is being intimidated by his South Korean handlers, some of whom recently ransacked his living quarters.
There is an adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Many supporters of Mr. Kim felt he was immune to such an influence. If the above allegations are true, however, it appears those supporters have been duped. As such, the one-time human rights activist who as president is suppressing the individual freedoms of his people, Mr. Kim will give credence to this adage — and in the process setting back the evolution of democracy in his country more so than any predecessor ever did.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.


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