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Monday, February 23, 1998 Published at 21:43 GMT

Special Report

New face at the Blue House
image: [ Protestors blame politicians for the economic mess ]
Protestors blame politicians for the economic mess

Last December, Kim Dae-jung became the first opposition leader to be elected president in South Korea's history. The BBC's East Asia analyst James Miles says that since then, although technically still a private citizen, the president-elect has been leading his country's efforts to overcome its economic crisis.

South Korea's outgoing president Kim Young-sam probably has few regrets that since the December elections, he's been reduced to little more than a figurehead leader. The country is now grappling with a severe economic crisis. Solving these problems will require tough measures that are bound to anger large numbers of people.

[ image: Praying for economic recovery]
Praying for economic recovery
Since his election, Kim Dae-jung has effectively taken over the reins of power. And he's done so without an overwhelming mandate. He won the election by a margin of less than 2 percent, and only with the co-operation of another political party that has strong ties with the bastions of South Korea's old economic order. Even with this uneasy alliance, Mr. Kim leads a minority government.

As president-elect, Mr. Kim has also been encumbered with his image as a champion of workers' rights and with his own campaign promises. Before the election, for example, Mr. Kim emphasised employment. Now many analysts predict the economic shake-up will lead to the doubling of unemployment this year.

Capable of strong leadership

Already Mr Kim has faced down the leaders of trade unions who'd threatened to organise a general strike in response to threatened layoffs. The same unions led a nationwide strike a year ago for similar reasons and succeeded in exacting concessions from President Kim Young-sam's government.

This time the unions may only have backed off temporarily, but the president-elect can derive some comfort from the lukewarm support among workers for industrial action.

In a series of meetings and phone calls with officials from the International Monetary Fund, the United States and Japan, Mr. Kim has gained much needed overseas support for his leadership. The International Monetary Fund has expedited the delivery of relief funds and foreign bankers have rolled over short-term debt.

Taking on the bosses

[ image: Labour leaders, businessmen and politicians stand together]
Labour leaders, businessmen and politicians stand together
Mr Kim has also met leaders of South Korea's big conglomerates -- the chaebols -- and has warned that these onetime pillars of the country's economy must carry out fundamental restructuring that would include weaning them off their cosy relationship with government. The chaebols have responded by announcing shakeup plans, but there's still some scepticism in South Korea about their sincerity.

Hardly will he have had time to rest after his elaborate inauguration, however, than Mr. Kim will face the first big political test of his presidency. The main opposition party, the Grand National Party, has vowed to oppose Mr. Kim's choice of prime minister, Kim Jong-pil, who belongs to the president-elect's electoral allies, the United Liberal Democrats.

The opposition says Kim Jong-pil is not qualified to tackle the country's economic problems. A showdown vote in parliament is expected on Wednesday.

Mr. Kim, the onetime dissident who's survived assassination attempts by government agents and years in jail and exile, now faces the ordeal of office.

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In this section

New face at the Blue House

Kim Dae Jung: A political profile

No tears for outgoing President

South Korea: A political history

Chaebols blamed for Korea's economic failure

South Korea: How the IMF deal works

Lee Hoi-chang: A political profile