Korea's Blue House: A Sign of New Times

ON a warm Sunday in September, children gambol on the greensward surrounding South Korea's neo-Greek, domed National Museum in Seoul, while the northern hills lift their craggy peaks in the background. There's nowhere like the museum to gain an appreciation of Korean history, which excluding mythology goes back well over two millennia.

The museum is filled with Korean families, Japanese tourists, and the occasional Westerner, exclaiming over the delicately wrought gold crowns of the Silla dynasty or contemplating the exquisite shapes of Koryo celadon vases. It is evident the Koreans were a vigorous, lively, and disputatious people, quick to absorb Chinese culture while adding to it their own strong individuality.

Behind the museum, the sloping-roofed pavilions of Kyongbok Palace march up a gentle incline, and behind that palace is the new Blue House, the massive presidential mansion rebuilt in Korean style by President Roh Tae Woo a couple of years ago.

The current incumbent of the Blue House is Kim Young Sam, the first civilian president the Republic of Korea has had in 32 years. In his inaugural address, he pledged that the Blue House would be a ``good neighbor'' to the citizens of Korea, and he has done just that.

Whereas, under successive military rulers, the whole area surrounding the presidential mansion was crawling with military guards and strictly off limits to ordinary citizens, today you can just about walk up to its very gate. The ``safe houses'' maintained by the notorious Korean CIA, in which presidents had secret rendezvous (and one president was killed by his own CIA chief), have been razed and the parklike atmosphere of the neighborhood restored.

Like his military predecessors, Mr. Kim aims to restore the national pride of the Korean people, and like them he calls for sacrifice and national discipline. But there the similarity stops.

Kim is a person who has devoted his whole public career to elective office, both during the civilian but authoritarian days of President Syngman Rhee (to 1960) and during the successive military regimes imposed thereafter. He has experienced house arrest and being made a non-person, unable to speak out or to make his views known.

The purpose of the national pride and the discipline he evokes is to serve what he calls a ``freer and more mature democratic society.'' To this end, he has not hesitated to purge well-known generals, officials, and politicians on charges of corruption, letting prosecutors spread their corruption-investigating net into his own cabinet and ruling party.

His most recent step is his boldest and most controversial. On Aug. 12, he suddenly announced that as of Oct. 12 all bank accounts not in the real names of the account-holders will be banned. It's a measure he passionately believes in; he pledged it repeatedly during his election campaign and again after becoming president. Without it, he has said, ``democracy cannot be healthy nor can capitalism blossom vigorously.''

But the ramifications are complicated and no one expected him to take action so soon. Not only have billionaires and bribe-taking officials used false names to hide their wealth, moneylenders on whom small businessmen depend for essential financing (at interest rates of 25 percent and more per annum) have parked their funds under aliases. These moneylenders have now stopped lending. With the economy in recession and a record 10,000 small firms in bankruptcy this year, the banning of false-name accounts could force a lot more businesses to the wall unless they find new sources of financing.

The government has promised one trillion won - about 12.5 billion dollars - specifically for this purpose, but it's not yet clear whether this will be enough, or whether, in increasing the money supply, the government can avoid stoking inflation (6.2 percent last year, compared to 9.3 percent in 1991). If the timing proves to have been wrong, the results could be disastrous.

Lifting restrictions on access to the Blue House was important symbolically. Targeting corrupt generals and politicians also won plaudits from most ordinary citizens. But the further Kim goes with his reforms, the more strenuous becomes the battle for the ``mature democracy'' he promises.

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