A storm of reform takes Seoul

South Korea's new leader is promoting young liberals past an outraged old guard.

At the prosecutor's office in downtown Seoul, dark-suited men return from lunch in groups of four and five. They are co-workers, former classmates, and close buddies who share an invisible bond and, as prosecutors, high status.

But this week, their world is rocking. It started with new President Roh Moo-hyun's decision to appoint a lawyer as his justice minister. Sounds tame, except that 43 of the last 44 Korean justice chiefs were prosecutors. If this weren't seismic enough, the new minister is 46, 11 years younger than the chief prosecutor. Her background is in human rights, rather than catching bad guys. But most shocking of all, Kang Gum-sil is a woman.

South Korea is still rigidly Confucian - operating on a strict set of rules that make age, grade, rank, class, and gender the basis for jobs in business, government, and the military. Mr. Roh, using his December election by a young generation as a mandate, is busy reshaping, some say smashing, such time-honored traditions.

"Appointing Kang is an incredible kick in the pants, a real shake-up," says one US analyst here. "It is obvious where Roh is going; those who can roll with the punches will, and the others will get out."

In turn, the new justice minister - known for her tolerance of pro-democracy activists in the 1980s during a military dictatorship - took an unheard of step. Ms. Kang promoted a set of young, reform-minded prosecutors, an act that forced the elders to resign to save face.

Since coming to office Feb. 25, Roh has quietly attempted to institute ideas of fairness and merit rather than age and rank. The president has surrounded himself with a cohort of advisors and friends who are activists - some of whom did jail time. His first interview was with an internet news service, "Ohmynews," popular with the wired, under-30 generation. And he publicly supported the arrest of the CEO of SKTelcom, one of Korea's largest conglomerates, on corruption charges.

"Roh is going further to challenge the old economic and social order than any Korean president in memory," argues an American business advisor who has lived in Seoul for 22 years. "He is part of a revolution. People say he is a socialist, a Korean Robin Hood. I don't believe that. What he is saying is that the law will dictate, not rank, and that if you got rich by illegal means, we will take your wealth."

Roh's main target to date is the prosecutor's office - long known as a tool of Korean leaders, who use the close-knit prosecutors to investigate, or not investigate, their political enemies and friends.

In Korea, promoting a junior over a senior is a signal to resign, and on Monday, Kim Kak-young, the chief prosecutor, did that - replaced by Song Kwang Soo, a reformer.

But Mr. Kim did not go quietly. Kang's plan to promote juniors that she and Roh trust outraged the prosecutorial hierarchy. So volatile was the moment this weekend that Roh took the issue to the nation Sunday evening - holding a TV debate, unprecedented in Korea, where he sat beside Kang and traded polemics and occasional barbs with a set of younger officials. Roh was visibly angered when, at one point, a junior talked back to him - considered a taboo in this country's circumspect public culture.

Still, the unusual TV confrontation is itself symbolic of changes underway, experts say. "It has been impossible to imagine anyone talking that way to our president," says a long time columnist. "When we elect a president, we think of him as a father figure. This is still a patriarchal society, and children don't talk back to parents."

How much of an "experiment," and how much of a "revolution" Roh represents - and both terms are being used - won't be known any time soon. Some worry that Roh is unleashing a Jacobin-style revolt that will end with younger opportunists simply talking about fairness while scheming to oust their seniors.

But even in the prosecutor's office, among those who stoutly defend the old system, the feeling is that Roh has the upperhand. "No one is going to stop Roh," says a senior prosecutor, "What we hope is that he will rearrange things, and then slow down. That would make the most sense."

In Korea every senior official in military law and government is linked to a class number. The number designates the year the individual passed either the bar exam or the respective military or civil service exam.

Passing the rigorous test, with scores high enough to enter the Korean fast-track, often takes years of study and several tries - but is then considered a status-enhancing career plumb. By tradition, when one is promoted, not only are senior candidates expected to resign, so are those with the same class number. Kim Kak-young passed the bar in class 11; Ms. Kang is class 23.

In some ways, the reforms represented by Roh are a furtherance of reforms already underway by former president Kim Dae Jung, who stepped down last month. The changes began after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, as South Korea faced bankruptcy. The climate of concern brought a willingness to face a traditional business culture here that was corrupt to the core.

In the past five years, President Kim essentially broke the "iron triangle" between bankers, bureaucrats, and industry captains that allowed Korea's huge conglomerates, known as "chaebol," to act with little accountability and to run huge hidden debts. The chaebol operated through an opaque old-boys' network. Until 1997, for example, bank presidents in Korea were chosen by politicians.

Under the iron triangle, government offered licenses, industry cronies outbid each other in informal men-only business clubs, and bankers obliged by making loans. But by last year, Kim had ended the licenses and required transparency in banks, among other reforms - causing a terrific blow to a traditional means of doing business outside the law or public scrutiny. Korea now has only five chaebols; there used to be 30, including Hyundai and Daewoo.

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