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South Korea Seeks Strong Leader In Wake of Recent IMF Bailout

By David Holley
Los Angeles Times
SEOUL, South Korea

For advertising executive Lee Cho Keun, financially troubled South Korea's decision last week to seek an International Monetary Fund bail-out of tens of billions of dollars was a humiliating blow.

"Korea's pride is hurt," said Lee, 44. "We've been saying that Korea is the world's 11th-largest economy and now this. We are angry that the politicians couldn't deal with this better. We feel that what could have been stopped with a shovel now must be stopped with a bulldozer."

With recent polls showing lame-duck President Kim Young Sam's popularity scraping bottom at less than 10 percent - compared with more than 90 percent support early in his term - South Koreans are longing for a strong leader they can respect, Lee and many others here say.

In a hard-fought campaign for the Dec. 18 election to choose Kim's successor, three major candidates are vying to become that man.

But perhaps because all three candidates are flawed, the ghost of a former president is hovering over the race: the late Park Chung Hee, a dictator whose contributions to South Korea's economic growth in his 1961-1979 rule recently have been more widely praised than they had been for years.

"Everybody, especially people in business, is complaining that the economy is terrible. They want to see a strong leader," said Shung Man Hyang, 39, a restaurant manager who said his sales are down 50 percent this year. "People's longing for Park Chung Hee, or a strong leader, may get stronger."

Park's high-growth miracle was built around a few dozen huge family-owned conglomerates that were fueled with immense government-directed bank loans, targeted to promote key industries regardless of profitability.