CHOPPY SEAS FOR SOUTH KOREAN CHIEF

CHOPPY SEAS FOR SOUTH KOREAN CHIEF

If South Korean parliamentary elections were to be held tomorrow instead of April 13, the party of President Kim Dae-jung would suffer a rude defeat, according to opinion polls.

The chief casualty of such a loss would be the president's economic reform program, which has brought the country out of the financial crisis that was roiling Asia so recently. Korea showed a 9 percent growth last year.And it would tie Kim's hands by placing him in the position of lame-duck leader until his mandated single term ends in 2003.

Kim's ''sunshine policy'' of encouragement toward North Korea might be harmed by such a setback, not to mention his chances for the Nobel Peace Prize, based on a long pro-democracy record.

By contrast, there are those analysts who think the president's virtuoso style would in fact be enhanced by the removal of domestic political encumbrances. He would then be free to negotiate a visit to North Korea for talks with Pyongyang leader Kim Jong Il.

The latest polls show that the conservative and pro-business opposition Grand National Party was leading in 107 of 227 parliamentary districts, compared with 97 for Kim's ruling Millennium Democratic Party.

The remaining 46 seats in the 273-member national assembly are apportioned based on the popular vote race, in which the GNP and MDP are said to be running neck and neck.

Two smaller polls claimed the undecided bloc, nearly one-third of the electorate, makes the outcome too close call.

This gives the South Korean election prospect a certain similarity to that of Taiwan, where I spent most of March. The vibrant stirrings of democracy there were like a spring wind, blowing away old elements and ushering in new personalities.

On my first visit to Taiwan 30 years ago, there were no elections at all. Now the people have spoken and provided an example that is giving elders in mainland China sleepless nights.

Likewise, when I first came to Korea 30 years ago there was little democracy. But change has swept the peninsula. The challenge is to remain patient, because there are still plenty of dangers.

When he was elected president on Dec. 19, 1997, Kim said, ''I always maintained that economic and democratic development must go together. Now, they have elected me, and I will pursue both, hand in hand.''

Some Americans once feared President Kim Dae-jung might try to go it alone, call for U.S. troop withdrawal and negotiate with the North directly. The anxieties have proved unfounded, and Kim solidly supports cooperation with the United States.

Kim had hoped that intense competition would overcome aberrations in Korean political life, where factionalism is a hallmark.

But support for two conservative parties, the United Liberal Democrats and the Democratic People's Party, has been undermined by civic groups using the Internet to accuse the older generation of politicians of being corrupt and incompetent. Analysts say this syndrome cuts both ways for Kim, helping him among some groups and hurting him among others.

Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea have tentatively set a May meeting in Sapporo, Japan, for Kim to visit and discuss a range of issues. Weeks before that - on Wednesday, to be precise - Japan-North Korea negotiations on establishing diplomatic ties are scheduled to resume for the first time since they collapsed in 1992.