S. Korea opposition: rising support brings rare display of unity
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Twelve National Assembly members of the main opposition party, the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP), defected from the party late last December, angry at the opposition's confrontational tactics and at the control over party affairs exercised by the two leading dissidents, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam -- neither of whom had joined the party. Kim Dae Jung was barred by the terms of a suspended sentence for sedition, while Kim Young Sam resisted joining in a show of solidarity.Skip to next paragraph
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On Jan. 9, NKDP assemblymen were indicted in connection with a brawl on the National Assembly floor the month before. If convicted, they could lose their seats -- which would trim the NKDP's voting strength to a dangerous low.
To bolster the party's flagging strength, Kim Dae Jung finally agreed to support Kim Young Sam's entry into the party, and the latter has helped turned the signature campaign into a stunning success.
The voices of assemblymen who wish to move more slowly and stress the politics of the Assembly have now been silenced by the mass outpouring of support for the petition drive.
There was rarely any doubt that South Koreans supported democratic reform. The question was whether they could draw together to express that support. But doubts nonetheless persist over where the movement is headed, now that it has found its voice.
``I don't think the opposition has a strategy,'' says a diplomat who closely follows South Korean politics. There is a lack of institutional mechanisms, such as an election, by which change can take place.
Some opposition assemblymen also are skeptical.
``There is little room for the government to compromise,'' one such assemblymen says, and he fears that the most likely outcome will be another round of intense political repression and possibly martial law.
``The more powerful we become,'' he says, ``the greater is our political dilemma.'' The government need only call out the Army to bring everything to a halt.
But opposition leaders Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung are nonetheless optimistic.
``I'm deeply satisfied,'' Kim Young Sam said on the plane back to Seoul after Sunday's rally. ``We managed to bring so many people together, and there was no violence.'' (The student violence erupted after the politicians had left Kwangju.) Kim believes that if the campaign stays peaceful and moderate, then the government will have no excuse to call in the Army.
``If the campaign continues to succeed, they will have no choice but to compromise,'' Kim Young Sam said. ``Our goal is dialogue. We want to have a three-way meeting with Kim Dae Jung, Kim Young Sam, and the President, and this will lead to democracy.''
Many observers have criticized the opposition, saying that it has been more successful as a protest movement than in offering any real alternative to the government. It has little in the way of new policy proposals.
Doubts also persist about whether the opposition coalitions now being welded into place would ever hang together in the absence of a common enemy.
Others point out, however, that the signature campaign looks like a dry run for an election and that the organization being put into place could give the opposition a powerful advantage next time South Koreans go to the polls.
The people who came to Sunday's rally seemed undeterred by these nagging questions.
``There is a fervor for democracy,'' said a middle-aged woman leaving the rally. ``The will of the people is like a flood, and nothing can stop it.''