Clouds Over Korea

South Korea has undergone remarkable political change over the past decade. Its democracy, though young, is vigorous. Its economic growth has become legendary.

But two clouds hang over the country's future: continuing tensions with communist North Korea, and the possibility that authoritarian traditions could resurface in the south.

The first cloud lightened a little last week when the North publicly regretted the spy submarine incident of last September. That still-puzzling episode nearly put the government of South Korean President Kim Young Sam on a war footing.

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It appeared for a while that the sub had sunk hopes - carefully tended by the United States - for North-South talks to end the long military standoff on the peninsula. Following the north's uncharacteristic mea culpa, the door could reopen to fruitful negotiations - though Pyongyang has since returned to its familiar denunciations of the South as a US "puppet."

That other cloud, the authoritarian impulse in the South, darkened a bit with the legislative maneuverings that led to a costly national strike by South Korea's labor movement. Meeting secretly, because opposition lawmakers had blocked entrance to the parliamentary chambers, supporters of President Kim passed laws that give companies greater freedom to lay off workers, thus enraging unions.

The secret legislating and blocked chambers are worrisome. But more disturbing was the passage, by the same governing party lawmakers, of a law restoring powers of domestic surveillance to the Agency for National Security Planning. That agency had a repressive role in the recent past, and heightened concerns about the North don't justify raising that possibility again. Spy powers are too easily directed toward domestic political opponents instead of outside threats.

That said, South Korea has come a long way from the time when citizens didn't dare criticize their government. Democratic processes are functioning, and mistakes can be corrected.

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