Koreans demand democracy, one protest at a time

Ahead of April 13 election, civic groups have forced changes from the government.

Yoon Bang, a respected physician, was a candidate in the April 13 parliamentary election for all of six days before he quit in disgust.

Like dozens of others, he was coaxed into running for office by a political party eager to bring fresh faces into the ranks.

But after Dr. Yoon was approached by private election brokers asking for money in return for guaranteed votes, he promptly left the race. "I just want to forget about the whole thing," says Yoon.

Like most Koreans, Yoon is disheartened by the corruption teeming through Korean politics. Weary with the rhetoric and a lack of discussion of the issues from their politicians, a groundswell of civic action has drastically reshaped the political landscape here. Tomorrow's poll will arguably be Korea's most democratic and open yet.

For the first time, the tax, legal, and military-service records of the candidates were released last week, which may help swing votes in many districts, say analysts. Several coalitions of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had lobbied the National Election Commission (NEC) to release the records.

One-quarter of the 952 candidates did not complete mandatory military service - five times the national average. One-third paid no property tax last year. A whopping 16 percent have criminal records: Although half of those were imprisoned by previous dictatorships for pro-democracy activities, others were jailed for bribery, fraud, violence, and adultery. The NEC's Web site was paralyzed by 240,000 hits the day it released the records.

In January, NGO coalitions began to release blacklists of candidates they considered to be "unfit" for public office. The offending politicians had done everything from taking bribes to fist fighting in the National Assembly. Although it was prohibited for special-interest groups to either endorse or oppose candidates, popular support forced the government to quickly amend the law. Special-interest groups are still prohibited from contacting voters directly about a particular candidate. But they say that as they push for more reform in Korean politics, more laws will have to change.

"The civic movement has transformed the whole election process," says Marion Kim at the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice, a prominent NGO.

The candidates have had a mixed reaction to the civic groups' campaign. The opposition party feels it is targeted unfairly. But others are more positive. "Participatory democracy is now beginning," says Yang Sun Mok, an official at the recently renamed ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP).

The issues are important in this election too: The result could signal a judgment on President Kim Dae Jung's economic reforms following the 1997 Asian economic crisis. Who wins a majority may determine how easily Mr. Kim can continue tweaking Korea's business laws. (The president, whose term ends in three years, cannot run for reelection.)

Kim's ruling party says that a majority in the legislature is necessary to improve business transparency, eliminate burdensome regulations, and adopt more international standards in general. If the MDP doesn't win a majority, it could be forced into an awkward coalition. The country must become more "globalized and welfare oriented" lest it risk further crises, says the MDP's Mr. Yang.

There is actually a broad consensus about the direction Korea must take, say observers. "Everybody knows we need to [reform the business conglomerates], embrace North Korea, and [improve social welfare]," says Ham Jae Bong, a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul.

While making a lot of noise, the opposition offers few real policy alternatives, says another MDP official. "Both the opposition and our party are aware that we need stability for our economy."

This underlying consensus has inspired campaigns that rely on mudslinging to differentiate candidates from one another. Even the promise of a first-ever North-South Korea summit announced by both sides on April 10 has made the MDP a target of criticism. The opposition charges that President Kim's groundbreaking attempt at reconciliation with the Communist North was timed to affect the election.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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