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New South Korean President to Face Many New Challenges

By Sonni Efron
Los Angeles Times
SEOUL, South Korea

Michael Jackson, Cory Aquino and Richard Riordan will be there. Nelson Mandela and George Bush can't make it. Elizabeth Taylor called in sick.

After a bitter winter of economic turmoil, South Korea is preparing to inaugurate former dissident Kim Dae Jung on Wednesday as its 15th president, sending him to live in the presidential palace from which his predecessors once ordered his death.

About 40,000 people, including a smattering of celebrities, former leaders of Japan, Germany and the Philippines, the mayor of Los Angeles and about 2,500 Korean-Americans are expected to attend. Disabled people and members of "the formerly alienated classes" also have been invited.

The swearing-in will be held outdoors, with no roof over Kim's head, "to reflect the new president's will to share the joys and sorrows with the people, rain or shine," organizers say.

In keeping with the cash-strapped times, the inauguration will be a frugal affair, with no gala parties or lavish balls to follow. But Kim and his aides are determined to use the ceremony, which represents the first peaceful transfer of power from the ruling party to an opposition party in South Korea's troubled postwar history, to lift the spirits of this anxious nation and usher in an era of reconciliation, sweeping reform and economic rebirth.

Kim, 74, was elected with just 40.3 percent of the vote but his popularity ratings have soared to over 80 percent in the seven weeks since. South Koreans of all political stripes give Kim high marks for managing the economic crisis and for brokering a crucial deal between labor, business and government that will let companies for the first time fire excess workers, with controls. About 17,600 civil servants will also get the chop, proving that Kim intends to spread the pain as fairly as possible.

But the new president will need to draw heavily on public good will, his personal courage and his considerable political wiles to tackle daunting problems ahead.

Kim will rule jointly with the International Monetary Fund, which is demanding painful reforms in exchange for the $60 billion global bailout plan that South Korea accepted in November. Per capita income is already plummeting, from $10,548 in 1996 to $6,600 this year, the LG Economic Research Institute forecasts. Economic growth is projected at 1 percent, if that. Unemployment is expected to reach 4.5 percent or 5 percent this year. About 50,000 people are being thrown out of work each month and the economy is not expected to hit bottom for at least another eight months.

Kim's political position is delicate, if not precarious. His government is the result of a coalition between his progressive, left-leaning National Congress for New Politics, and the deeply conservative United Liberal Democrats led by Kim Jong Pil. Even supporters wonder how long the odd-fellow marriage can survive in a nation that has never before had a coalition government .

The opposition has begun playing hardball even before Kim takes the oath of office. The Grand National Party, which controls 162 of the 299 seats in the National Assembly, decided last week to refuse to confirm the nomination of Kim Jong Pil as prime minister. Kim Dae Jung had publicly promised the post to his former rival last fall as part of the coalition deal.

The nomination vote, expected to be held within hours of the inauguration ceremony Wednesday, is being seen as a crucial test of the new president's political clout.

Opposition leaders object to Kim Jong Pil's background - he helped his uncle, Park Chun Hee, seize power in a 1961 coup, then ran the Korean Central Intelligence Agency - and believe an economist would be more deft than an old-line politician in defusing the financial crisis.

But Kim Dae Jung and his allies say the president-elect campaigned and won with a platform based on the "DJP coalition," as the deal between the two Kims is called here. "If the opposition party refuses to confirm Mr. Kim Jong Pil, that is against the will of the people," declared Lee Jong Chan, chairman of the presidential transition team.

But some of Kim Dae Jung's supporters have their own doubts about Kim Jong Pil. "JP's party is not so supportive of reform," said Korea University Professor Choi Jang Jip, who is on the 15-member committee that helped draft Kim's inaugural address. "It's the pipeline for the interests of the Establishment, including the chaebol," powerful Korean conglomerates whose profligate borrowing and inefficiencies are blamed as a culprit in Korea's economic dive. "The question is how long the coalition can last," Choi said.