South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has proposed spending millions of dollars to build a memorial museum in tribute to president Park Chung Hee, whose agents once kidnapped Kim and tried to kill him.

By publicly forgiving Park -- who was assassinated by a disgruntled intelligence official in 1979 -- Kim has once again sent political analysts scurrying: Is Kim living up to his reputation as the "Nelson Mandela of Asia," forgiving his former persecutor for the sake of national reconciliation?

Or, as opponents say, is he a public relations master with a shrewd grasp of political arithmetic? Kim's party, which faces national elections next year, has weak support in Park's birthplace, where millions revere the former leader for the tremendous economic gains he brought to the nation.

"In the past, we were political enemies . . . but today I would put that all behind and reconcile with president Park," Kim said, speaking recently in the southeastern city of Taegu, Park's home town. Kim went on to recall eloquently how he cried in his jail cell when he thought he was certain to be killed.

"I was thinking inside the jail that there were so many people I hated," he said. "But I knew that I could not pay back all these people; there were so many. The best way is just to forgive." He then invoked the biblical admonishment to "hate the sin, not the sinner."

Such grand gestures are adding to a worldwide reputation Kim has built during his three-decade rise from dissident human rights activist to national leader. Frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, Kim will travel to Philadelphia to accept a $100,000 human rights award, the Liberty Medal, on July 4.

But at home, perhaps inevitably, Kim has his doubters. Few disagree that acts such as forgiving Park are exceptionally magnanimous, but many say his motivation is as self-serving as saintly.

Despite his undisputed record on democracy and human rights, Kim's administration has conducted a campaign of intimidation against its political enemies. The opposition Grand National Party has charged that he has abused his authority and used illegal surveillance and wiretapping as well as threats of tax audits against political enemies and those who cross him. Officials of Kim's administration call those allegations "exaggerated."

Some scholars say they feel pressure to censor their public statements, believing it would be unwise to publish any works critical of Kim's cherished "sunshine policy" of open engagement with North Korea. Many conservatives and moderates question whether South Korea has given too much food, money and political leeway to the Communist North, while its longtime enemy has shown few signs of reciprocating.

"We call him a black-belt politician," said Lee Jung Hoon, a political scientist at Seoul's Yonsei University. "He really relishes being Asia's Mandela, and there is a lot of talk of him being bent on winning the Nobel Peace Prize." But Lee said that for a "guy who lived for democracy" there is a sense that he is now "abusing his power. . . . People are afraid to say things or write things against the things this government holds dear."

Said Grand National Party spokesman Park Shin Il: "He's been a fighter for democracy; that's no guarantee that he's a democrat."

But while Kim's image at home is not as tidy as it is abroad, he is fast solidifying his position as South Korea's strongest president in two decades. In fact, the last one held in such high public regard was Park -- Kim's former enemy, now forgiven, who had him arrested on trumped-up sedition charges.

Grudgingly, some rival politicians say they have been surprised at Kim's strength and are grateful for his effectiveness. Kim became president 16 months ago, just as the nation's economy virtually collapsed. Derided initially by some as weak on economics, he has led South Korea out of its financial crisis at a surprising pace.

Criticized also as being too old to lead in tough times, Kim answered those critics by displaying the energy and stamina of a Clydesdale. The 73-year-old president, who walks with a limp -- the result of a car accident that he believes was another assassination attempt during Park's term -- was in Moscow last month, has just visited Mongolia and will make his second official visit to the United States in early July.

Park Jai Chang, a political scientist at Sook Myung Women's University here, says that much of Kim's success stems from his ability to "package the realistic in idealistic terms." Kim's "sunshine policy" often sounds like the wishful thinking of an idealist, but it has proven to be a pragmatic approach after years of military bluster toward Pyongyang yielded nothing but greater tensions. While Pyongyang and Seoul are still far apart on most points, the two governments have been cooperating more readily on economic issues and talking to each other with more civility than they have in years.

During Kim's remarkable 90-minute speech about Park in Taegu, he said he always regretted that he and the former president could not have joined forces, combining Park's thirst for economic greatness with Kim's own hunger for democracy. "Together, we could have changed history," Kim said.

Since the nation's economic collapse last year, South Koreans are remembering Park more for his economic leadership -- and for instilling of pride and confidence in a war-weary nation -- than for his abysmal record on human rights.

After two decades of weak or corrupt presidents since Park, many people say he can be forgiven for breaking a few heads while leading South Korea to economic greatness. One candidate who ran for president against Kim in 1997 even adopted Park's slicked-back hairstyle as part of what has been called the "Park Chung Hee Syndrome."

Kim's public praise of Park adeptly taps into that nostalgia and a growing South Korean embarrassment that every president since the republic was formed in 1948 has met with some disgrace or disaster. Park was assassinated; two other presidents were ousted in military coups; two were recently convicted of corruption and sent to prison. The immediate past president, Kim Young Sam, left office in disgrace last year over his handling of the economy.

CAPTION: President Kim, left, has sought to honor his onetime tormentor, Park Chung Hee, right, a move viewed by some South Koreans as magnanimous and by others as politically inspired.