Sombre South Korea hails its new leader

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The Independent Online
KIM DAE JUNG, the former dissident and political prisoner who survived sentences of death, abduction by assassins and defeat in three previous elections, will be inaugurated as president of South Korea this morning in an atmosphere of exultation which only partly masks an atmosphere of deep national apprehension.

He is the first opposition politician to lead South Korea, a sign of political maturity that coincides with the worst economic crisis since the Korean War. Since his narrow election victory, Mr Kim has been an unofficial acting president, eclipsing his predecessor and rival, the discredited Kim Young Sam. But South Koreans have little expectation of any quick solutions to their problems.

As the new president leads a victory procession through Seoul tomorrow, the finance ministry will announce a list of merchant banks to be closed as part of a restructuring insisted on by the IMF in return for a $60bn (pounds 38bn) rescue package. And, despite recent positive signs from North Korea, Mr Kim yesterday said the state of the South's economy means it will be at least a decade before the peninsula is reunified.

Hotels in Seoul were turning people away last night as the city filled with guests including Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and the former Philippines president Cory Aquino, an unusual phenomenon in a country which saw its economy turned upside down by the currency crisis last year. The Korean won is worth barely half what it was a year ago, and South Korea's formerly powerful conglomerates, the chaebol, have been crippled by paying back foreign loans which have doubled in value.

During his election campaign Mr Kim's instinct for populism got the better of him when he hinted that he would reject the unpopular deal worked out between Kim Young Sam's government and the IMF. However much ordinary South Koreans may have agreed, the markets plunged. Since his victory, however, Mr Kim has more than made amends, affirming the IMF agreement, and brokering compromises between the chaebols and the country's militant unions, which have traditionally supported him but now face large-scale redundancies.

Officials speak of "front-loading" Mr Kim's programme so that the most painful reforms are carried through during the new president's "honeymoon" period. This week he was officially absolved of accusations that he amassed a fortune in bribes, like two former presidents whom he released from prison. But spring is the season of protest in South Korea, as students return to universities. A fortnight ago a general strike organised by the biggest union was called off at the last minute.

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