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Japan's New Shadow Shogun

A mercurial longtime powerbroker, now disgraced, is behind the rise of Japan's opposition party.

The center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated the Japanese Diet for more than a half-century. It oversaw the economic stagnation of the 1990s, and it revitalized itself in the 2000s only to fall into fractious disarray by 2006. The voting public has finally had enough -- and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) looks almost certain to take power in the Aug. 30 general election.

The stark shift in political tides is perhaps best described as the LDP's loss, more so than the DPJ's gain. But the opposition party has transformed itself from an inchoate also-ran to a disciplined and united political movement. That change is mostly due to one man: Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ's recently disgraced and highly powerful former leader. And though he won't be at the head of the party, his role within it is one of the big questions facing the DPJ as it looks toward victory this month.

Ozawa has loomed large in Japanese politics since the end of the Cold War. He took over his father's seat in the Japanese Diet, the country's legislature, in 1969 and became a popular LDP leader in the late 1980s. From early in his career, he was the political godson of Kakuei Tanaka, the legendary leader who refined the LDP's political machine and paved over Japan in the process.

By the early 1990s, Ozawa became disenchanted with the LDP's pork-barrel politics. He started advocating for the "normalization" of Japanese security policy -- a commitment of forces outside Japan, as with Operation Desert Storm. Most of all, he became convinced that the country needed more vigorous democracy, in which parties competed for votes by crafting the best policies. Ozawa gathered a group of loyalists who shared his ideas. Eventually, his faction pulled out of the LDP entirely, toppling its government in 1993 -- the first time since 1955.

Ozawa, though not in the Cabinet, was the key player in the short-lived non-LDP coalition government. (The LDP regained power in 1997.) He supported the fragile coalition from behind the scenes, helping to broker the most important political deals. Additionally, he published Blueprint for a New Japan, a highly influential manifesto, calling for electoral reform and more assertive foreign-affairs and defense policies.

As a fulfillment of his Blueprint, he sought to build a stable and strong opposition party throughout the 1990s. This led to a few misfires. He helped create the New Frontier Party, which contested one general election before dissolving in 1997. Then he supported the Liberal Party, already composed mostly of politicians loyal to him. It briefly joined the LDP in a tumultuous coalition government, but never gained political traction.

Ozawa finally found a viable vehicle when he merged the Liberal Party with the fledging DPJ in 2003. He cajoled the party into the center, forging a consensus position on foreign policy among party members with markedly different ideologies and improving the recruitment of viable candidates for office. He also bulked up the party's agricultural policies to better appeal to longtime LDP supporters in depressed rural areas. During his three years as party leader -- from 2006 until this spring -- the DPJ became disciplined and more focused.

This meteoric political career -- within the leading party and against it -- has garnered Ozawa an outsize and controversial reputation. He has no shortage of enemies from across the political spectrum. Many politicians and commentators deride him for his Machiavellian behavior and secrecy: He rarely explains the reasoning behind his decisions and expects loyalists to trust his lead unquestioningly. Notoriously, in 2007 he entered into negotiations to create a grand coalition government without even consulting many LDP party elders.

Others accuse him of caring more about politics than policy. The implication is that Ozawa is unchanged from his days as Tanaka's young lieutenant, more interested in acquiring power than in figuring out how to use it. The arrest of a political aide on charges of taking illegal contributions from a construction company -- the scandal that led to Ozawa's resignation as party leader -- seemed to confirm the criticism. Ozawa is, above all, polarizing. The intense hatred of his critics is matched by the equally intense loyalty of his longtime allies. And because Ozawa rarely gives interviews and often works behind the scenes, he has preserved an air of inscrutability.

Now, Yukio Hatoyama is the DPJ's leader and the presumptive prime minister. But Ozawa remains kingmaker: the DPJ's chief election strategist with the fealty of a band of party members in the Diet who could ultimately number up to 100. Thus, he and his supporters will be critical to the success or failure of a DPJ government, especially leading up to Japan's upper house elections next summer.

The question now is how to fit this outsize figure into the new government -- a problem similar to the one faced by Democratic Party loyalists in the United States over Bill Clinton's role in the Obama administration. Conventional wisdom holds that the DPJ must find a role for him within the party so that he uses his considerable talents without undermining or overwhelming its leadership during its tenuous fresh tenure -- not an easy balance to find.

One idea -- allegedly favored by Hatoyama -- is for Ozawa to move into the post of party secretary-general. In this role, Ozawa would discipline DPJ backbenchers and prepare the party for the next election -- a task that might perfectly suit his talents. But a Secretary-General Ozawa would surely be tempted to question the Cabinet and influence its policies from the outside. This would undercut one of the DPJ's core principles: streamlined, transparent, accountable government.

Thus, it could also make sense to include Ozawa in the Cabinet -- better that he disagree with a policy from within the government. Hatoyama has a reputation of being a weak leader, with poorly developed policy ideas: The success of his Cabinet will depend on having it staffed with strong ministers. (This contrasts with the government of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a charismatic and popular figure.) Ozawa would be best suited at a post crafting political strategy, as a deputy prime minister or minister without portfolio. But having Ozawa in the Cabinet would naturally stir criticism that Hatoyama is the elder leader's puppet.

Despite these criticisms and concerns, it is possible to overstate Ozawa's influence. Unlike the unwieldy coalition that formed a government in 1993, when Ozawa toppled the LDP, the DPJ is more unified -- and there is more to the party than Ozawa. Further, a DPJ government presents Ozawa with the best opportunity for him to implement his long-standing vision of a new Japan. Whether Ozawa ends up as kingmaker or good soldier, then, the ascendancy of the new party bodes well for the Japanese.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Profile

Ain't No Sunshine

Kim Dae-jung may have been a democrat, but the late South Korean president was no saint. His true legacy will be one of utter failure in dealing with his northern neighbor.

Since his death on Aug. 18, Kim Dae-jung has been celebrated as a "great leader." Delivering his eulogy at Kim's state funeral on Aug. 23, South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo called the former president "a great leader of modern history," one whose "sacrifices, dedication, and devotion allowed freedom, human rights, and democracy to fully blossom in Korea." North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's appraisal was understandably more muted, but nonetheless laudatory. In his condolence message, the northern Kim said of the southern Kim that the "feats" the latter performed "will remain long with the nation." North Korea even sent a high-level mourning delegation to Seoul, the first of its kind in recognition of a South Korean leader.

Kim Dae-jung's death comes less than three months after the suicide of his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, and amid speculation about the condition of the ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. These three men are joined to each other in history by the so-called Sunshine Policy, a failed, decade-long experiment geared toward improving relations with Kim Jong Il's North Korea that was initiated by Kim Dae-jung and carried on by Roh Moo-hyun. The three men represent an era, one that is more likely to be remembered for Seoul's misplaced aid to a totalitarian regime than for any meaningful advances in political, economic, or humanitarian issues in inter-Korean relations.

For four decades, Kim Dae-jung was a prominent figure on the South Korean political scene. In his younger days as the country's leading dissident, Kim was able to present to his compatriots a vision of what his country should strive to become. He was a powerful symbol of the country's struggle for democracy and human rights at a time when South Korea's rapidly rising material culture engendered greater calls for political freedom and civil rights. Then, as president from 1998 to 2003, Kim was able to restructure the country's powerful-but-overextended conglomerates and banks and pay back the $60 billion that the International Monetary Fund had loaned his country in the wake of the Asian financial crisis.

Kim will most likely be recorded in the annals of Korean history, however, not for his contributions to the economy or his efforts at advancing South Korea's political rights as a dissident, but for his failed North Korea policy as president.

Despite his pursuit of reconciliation with North Korea, when it came to the question of the fundamental rights of his fellow Koreans north of the border, Kim was unable to present any vision of hope. In fact, throughout his term in office, he assiduously downplayed the widespread human rights abuses in North Korea. Incredibly, Kim told an audience at a leading Washington think tank in March 2001 that the greatest human rights problem in the Korean peninsula was that of the separated families between the two Koreas and that his administration was making progress on that admittedly important issue. But on the far graver issue of the North Korean regime's systemic and widespread attack on its civilian population -- including the operation of vast political prisoner concentration camps where random beating, torture, public execution, hard labor, and starvation are brutal everyday realities -- Kim chose to remain silent.

Kim's presidency was capped by the first-ever inter-Korean summit in June 2000. His meeting with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang was hailed worldwide at the time as the dawn of an era of peace on the Korean peninsula. The man who had staked his presidency on mending relations with Pyongyang was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

But the summit was later revealed to have been bought and paid for by the southern Kim with a secret transfer of $500 million to the northern Kim in the days leading up to the dramatic occasion. Facing public criticism and an investigation by a special prosecutor, Kim Dae-jung and his supporters argued that the payment was a "peace dividend," an investment in peace and reconciliation. Some insisted that it was a small price to pay for lasting inter-Korean reconciliation, a small burden that the South Korean economy -- the 12th largest in the world -- could easily bear.

What went unmentioned, however, was that the half a billion dollars in question was roughly equal to North Korea's export earnings at the time. It was an enormous cash infusion for North Korea, one of the smallest and most isolated economies in the world. Kim's cash gift to a hereditary totalitarian leadership that identifies as its highest state priorities regime preservation, advancement of its nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction programs, and existential competition against Seoul was an economic bonanza that carried serious strategic and moral implications.

The full effects on the South Korean people of such a dubious and dangerous financial transaction undertaken by their elected leader remain to be seen. But the prognosis does not augur well. Since 2000, Seoul has poured billions in cash and other blandishments into North Korea. In the meantime, Pyongyang has conducted two nuclear tests, two long-range ballistic missile tests, and multiple short-range missile tests, all while pursuing an alternate clandestine nuclear weapons program based on highly enriched uranium. Pyongyang has proliferated missiles, nuclear technology, counterfeit U.S. currency, and narcotics. The regime has continued to brutalize its civilian population, trampling on their most basic human rights, while issuing periodic threats of nuclear annihilation at Seoul. Even in the heyday of sunshine, in June 2002, North Korea instigated a naval skirmish that resulted in the loss of six South Korean lives. The much anticipated "peace and reconciliation" conjured up in June 2000 seems today as elusive as ever. No wonder South Koreans, increasingly disillusioned with a policy of giving unconditional aid to the North, in 2007 opted to vote for the conservative candidate, Lee Myung-bak, who ran on a platform of growing the economy and demanding accountability and reciprocity from Pyongyang.

Kim Dae-jung until his last days struggled to snuff out such shimmers of doubt. Three days before he was admitted to the hospital in July, the former president told the BBC that his administration had never sent cash to Pyongyang but only 200,000 to 300,000 tons of food and fertilizer aid each year. Kim claimed that the cash transfer of $500 million was a risk undertaken by the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai alone to secure commercial rights in North Korea.

Such claims are inconsistent with the findings of the special prosecution that led to the imprisonment of one of Kim's key aides and the conviction of several others. Only time will show to what extent Seoul's gifts to Pyongyang supported the latter's stated "military-first politics." But what has been certain for some time now is that the generous and often unprincipled engagement of the North Korean regime by Kim and his successor, Roh, managed to deter neither that regime's dogged quest for nuclear weapons nor the barbaric oppression of its own people.

The news of Kim Dae-jung's death has engulfed South Korea over the past week. After a six-day mourning period, the Lee administration honored Kim with a state funeral in the National Assembly compound despite intense criticism from conservative groups. Hundreds of government officials, prominent politicians, and foreign dignitaries, as well as thousands of ordinary mourners, bade farewell to the iconic former president before he was finally laid to rest in the national cemetery later in the day.

The North Korean delegation, led by Kim Yang Gon, Pyongyang's spy master, and a senior secretary of the communist party, marks the first high-level meeting between Seoul and Pyongyang since Lee Myung-bak took office. The North Korean envoys visited Lee on the morning of the funeral and conveyed a message from Kim Jong Il calling for improved relations. Thus, as the world pontificated for the past year on what possible change and opportunity might come in the wake of the demise of the ailing North Korean leader, it was Kim Jong Il who deftly made the most of the change and opportunity created in the wake of the death of his favorite South Korean leader.

The northern Kim is making the most of South Korea's volatile situation to alter the atmospherics in the Korean peninsula to one that favors unilateral concessions from Seoul to Pyongyang, as Kim Dae-jung espoused. Awash as it is in the politics of death, the Seoul government will need to summon extraordinary resolve not to fall for Pyongyang's trap. As witnessed in May in the wake of Roh's death, or even 15 years earlier in the wake of the death of Kim Il Sung, the founding dictator of North Korea, the outpouring of grief upon Kim Dae-jung's death has once again been powerful and pervasive. As in the past, the emotions expressed upon the death of a Korean leader have been raw, reactive, and real. And, as in the past, dissenting voices at an emotional and politically sensitive time like this have been shunned by South Korea's mainstream media. In effect, the death of the former South Korean leader has turned the inter-Korean tide in Pyongyang's favor.

All men are mortal, and each culture has its own mourning ritual. Koreans choose to wail over and decry the death of loved ones, as if mortality itself is unjust and the life of each dead person is one unfulfilled. The conventions of centuries-old Korean funerary rites leave little room for a sober assessment of the legacy that the dead leaves behind. Kim Dae-jung's achievements are rightfully being remembered. His failings, in the current climate, are not.

Yet, history judges leaders for their acts, not for the poignant glimpses of their twilight years or the mournful moment of their demise. Time and temperament may erase the taint that ordinary men leave behind. But Kim Dae-jung's presidential legacy, abetting a growing nuclear threat toward South Koreans and ignoring the continued systematic abuse of millions of North Koreans, is a mark that -- despite his decades-long devotion to advancing democracy in South Korea -- no amount of time or tears is likely to wash away.

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