In S. Korea, Legislating Grinds to a Noisy Halt

First they protested verbally, then they held street rallies. Now two of South Korea's opposition parties are physically blocking the start of the National Assembly to gain reforms they say aim to eliminate vestiges of military rule in this young democracy.

Since June 5, the assembly's legally mandated annual opening date, opposition lawmakers have blocked ruling party lawmakers from reaching the podium.

The National Congress for New Politics (NCNP) and United Liberal Democrats (ULD) say they won't allow the assembly to start until the ruling New Korea Party (NKP) gives back 12 lawmakers it recruited from independents and opposition parties, forming the legislative majority the NKP couldn't win from voters two months ago.

Opposition lawmakers complain the NKP "immorally" fleshed out its majority in order to maintain existing laws that give the president decisive power over the legislature. They also want a government promise to revise election laws that set campaign spending limits unrealistically low, loosen the ruling party's control over TV broadcasters and public prosecutors, and launch a systematic investigation into April election law violations.

Rubber-stamp legislature?

Without these reforms, the assembly would be "nothing but a rubber stamp for the ruling party," says NCNP legislator Yang Sung Chul.

In South Korea, prosecutors and police chiefs can be directly hired and fired by the president. The opposition complains they enforce election laws unevenly - they say several ruling party lawmakers underwent only perfunctory investigation for vote buying and other violations in April's election. One condition on opening the assembly is for public prosecutors to be made independent.

Another is for the government to divest itself of controlling shares in two TV networks. Through indirect threats, including tax probes, news content is manipulated, according to the opposition. A common expression is "starting-bell Kim news," meaning that each night's news broadcast begins with a story, no matter how trite, about President Kim Young Sam.

Tight cap on campaign spending

The election law, which sets campaign spending limits unrealistically low, makes "nearly every member of parliament a criminal," says Chung Si Ahn, a political science professor at Seoul National University.

Under threat of investigation and possible expulsion from the assembly, some lawmakers were drawn into NKP's fold, says the opposition.

In the April elections, the ruling party received large donations from businesses; the opposition got nothing. Business people know that giving money to the opposition could mean a tax probe, opposition lawmakers say. The opposition proposes an official election committee to collect donations and redistribute them based on a party's numbers.

With a majority of only two lawmakers in a 299-member assembly, the NKP wouldn't seem to have such a tight grip on power. But the political institutions and political culture in South Korea keep party members from breaking ranks.

While the parties wrangle, the public grows more frustrated at what it sees as an unproductive assembly not addressing education reform, small- and medium-business assistance, infrastructure, and North Korean relations.

Some say the standoff could go on for months.

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