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NOVEMBER 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 43 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Seokyong Lee - Black Star.
'Sunshine' Haters
Kim Dae Jung's conservative problem on North Korea
CHO GAP JAE is editor of Monthly Chosun, published by the leading Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo. Cho is known in South Korea for his conservative views

In South Korea, the words "conservative" and "progressive" have opposite meanings when one is talking about North Korea. The conservatives emphasize personal freedom and human rights. The progressives give priority to peace and minjok, or nationalism. The conservatives argue that the unification of South and North Korea should take place under the principles of freedom and democracy, and they see the democratization of the North as a basic condition. They reject Kim Jong Il as a leader with whom unification can even be discussed and say that justice will be served only when he is brought to trial. The progressives say that any mention of human rights is an attempt to exacerbate the differences between the Koreas. To them, Korean nationalism is more important than ideology.

For the South, the battle for unification will not be between the two Koreas, but a domestic one between conservatives and the intellectual-led progressives. The former, who include political leader Kim Jong Pil, see the substance of South-North relations in the armed confrontation between the two countries' ideologies. To them, unification means the absorption of the North into the South's political system of freedom and democracy.

The progressives, who include the major student organization Hanchongryon and labor unions, have never spelled out their political vision of a unified Korea. The conservatives believe that the progressives are being used by pro-North Korean elements to achieve their goal — unification under the North's terms. They have called for the separation of pro-North Korean elements from the progressives and their subsequent isolation.

After the June summit in Pyongyang between South and North Korea, the progressives appeared to be in the ascendant, with a feverish rise in calls by the media, intellectuals, civic organizations and students for a nationalism-based unification. But their voice masks reality. As the April general elections had confirmed, the conservative middle class is still dominant in South Korea. Progressive elements do not exceed 20% of the population, but being more visible they seem to dominate society.

President Kim Dae Jung has repeatedly stressed the importance of collaboration between South Korea, Japan and the United States to successfully implement policies on North Korea. What is even more important for his "Sunshine" initiative on the North is the attitude of the South's conservatives. Contrary to the media excitement over unification, they are anxiously watching the events now unfolding. If pro-North Korean elements hiding under the garb of progressive forces are able to incite anti-Americanism and nationalism-based unification, these forces will be further strengthened.

Conservative opposition toward any such campaign could turn into an anti-Kim Dae Jung movement. If Kim fails to win the support of the conservatives, he will not be able to pursue his North Korea policies. President Richard Nixon succeeded in dEtente with China because the American silent majority did not question his intentions. Kim Dae Jung is different. His support comes chiefly from one region, Cholla in the south, and a small group of progressive elements.

While the progressives are the most active in pursuing their goals, that could change if the conservatives were to unite and mount a campaign. The trigger for this would be fear that communization of the South was a distinct possibility. Among the conservatives are former military officers, Christians and businessmen. The Rev. Paul Cho Yong Ki of the Full Gospel Central Church in Seoul and other pastors have criticized the summit and Kim Jong Il.

But the conservatives would be unlikely to take action unless they felt threatened by any joint activities of pro-North Korean and progressive forces. Unenthusiastic about unifying (and too interested in making money, say critics within), the conservatives in the past have been content to leave the protection of South Korean freedom and democracy to the government in power. Thus, despite being a majority, they remain a minority voice. Under Kim Dae Jung, the conservatives for the first time feel that the government is not on their side and that it's up to them to protect freedom and democracy.

The key demand in this nascent awakening is that the country remain free from communist influence. Pyongyang believes that the departure of American troops would make the creation of a pro-North Korean government in the South relatively easy. That underestimates South Korea's conservative forces built up over the past 50 years. If they are able to check Kim Dae Jung's policies, South Korea can reassert its leadership role in matters relating to the two Koreas.

If Kim Dae Jung ignores the wishes of the conservatives and is seen to be promoting pro-North Korean activities, his power base will weaken — as will his position in dealing with Kim Jong Il. There is a constitutional test ahead for the two groups. In 2002 South Korea is due to elect a new president; Kim Dae Jung is not eligible to run again. Conservatives may revolt by electing one of their own as president. At any time, this so far silent majority holds the key to the future relations between North and South.

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