FOR at least 5,000 years, the people who inhabit the Korean Peninsula have been ruled from the top down, whether by kings, colonial interlopers, or dictators. In North Korea, where the world's only Communist dynasty remains in power, that tradition continues.
But South Koreans are about to choose six big-city mayors, nine provincial governors, and thousands of local legislators in elections June 27. "This is a total reversal" of the traditional power heirarchy, says Cho Se Hyung, an opposition member in the National Assembly. "To have local elections itself is an advance, and is good for the future of Korea."
Technically speaking, these elections aren't the first appearance of local autonomy here. A military coup cut short an emerging system of decentralized political rule in 1961. But that period was so short-lived and chaotic that observers like Mr. Cho prefer to take the long view.
To some Koreans, the local races are yet further evidence of South Korea's right to claim a place in the top tier of nations. Since the 1950-53 Korean War, the country has developed a dynamic industrial base. Per capita income is about to reach $10,000 a year, where in 1962 it was $83. In 1992, South Koreans elected President Kim Young Sam, the first popularly chosen civilian leader in more than three decades.
"Korea is on the threshold of being an advanced country," says Ha Soon Bong, a ruling-party legislator. "Economic prosperity is very important, but in addition to that we are required to establish democratic political and social systems."
President Kim hopes the balloting will be a "glistening milestone in the history of Korean democracy and national development," but critics say he is accentuating the historical import of the polls in order to undermine a tactic of his political opponents: characterizing the elections as a referendum on Kim's own performance.
Kim, a longtime democracy campaigner whose election marked the end of decades of military rule, has come under attack for an aloof leadership style, known here as "the one-man show," and for not following through on political reforms intended to stop collusive dealings between government and big business.
Problems in the country's infrastructure - collapsing bridges and natural-gas explosions have killed scores of people in recent months - have also led to criticism of the administration. Kim has already reshuffled his Cabinet in response to public outrage. But because it is traditional in some East Asian countries for people to blame leaders for disasters, voters may punish Kim's party in the local races.
And some commentators are dissatisfied with the complex relationship among North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. The South has long been a US ally, but Kim has been accused of letting the North bypass him and forge its own links with the US. "These elections will be a political evaluation of his government," says Kim Young Bae, an editor at Seoul's Joong-ang Daily News.
One problem may come in interpreting the results. Both the ruling party and the opposition are divided. Earlier this year Kim forced out the chairman of his ruling Democratic Liberal Party, Kim Jong Pil, reportedly because the latter was too intent on replacing Kim Young Sam when his current term expires in early 1998. Kim is limited to a single five-year term but he wants to choose who his party will field.
Kim Jong Pil promptly organized his own group of like-minded conservative legislators and is vowing to use the local races to build a regional base that could pose problems for Kim Young Sam's party.
The good news for the president is that the opposition Democratic Party has been rent by even more extreme leadership problems, with longtime pro-democracy activist Kim Dae Jung still keeping silent on whether he wants to run for president. Kim Dae Jung, who lost to Kim Young Sam in the 1992 election, functions as a sort of outside eminence grise, making life difficult for Democratic Party leaders who are trying to run the party from the inside.
"The failure of leadership in our party ironically has extended a helping hand" to Kim Young Sam, says Cho.
Kim Dae Jung has also complicated the political scene by saying the emergence of regionally based parties might not be bad, contradicting years of conventional wisdom that excessive regionalism, with voters supporting candidates based on local loyalties, was a problem in Korean politics.
But a system of regional parties would all but guarantee Kim Dae Jung a post at the head of one of them. And President Kim has also appeared to push for a Cabinet system of government that would have a strong prime minister and a ceremonial, "big-picture" president, rather than having a popularly elected president and an ineffectual premier.
Editor Kim says Kim Dae Jung would like to be president, so he could preside over the unification of the two Koreas.