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APRIL 14, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 14 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Seokyong Lee - Black Star for Asiaweek
A young voter's haircut calls for fair elections

Evaluating Kim
South Korea's upcoming polls are a verdict on the president's policies
By LAXMI NAKARMI Seoul

PLUS: No Longer Labor's Hero

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, about 200 people gather in Paris Park in Mokdong, a middle-class neighborhood in southwest Seoul. They are attending an election rally by Park Bom Jin, a legislative candidate for the ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). Speaking on behalf of Park is former chief-of-staff Kim Jin Ho. "Lee Hoi Chang, the leader of the Grand National Party, is claiming that a military threat from North Korea exists," says Kim. "But I am here to tell you that there is no threat from North Korea. As the military's chief-of-staff until December last year, I can assure you that we know all about the North Korean armed forces. We read their moves as clearly as you read the lines on your palms."

An hour later, it is the opposition Grand National Party's turn to hit back. Hong Sa Duck, head of the GNP's campaign committee, tells people in the lower-income area of Eunpyong that they should not believe what President Kim Dae Jung says. "I don't want to say that [President Kim] is lying," he declares, "but I can say that he is ignoring threats from North Korea and pursuing his Sunshine Policy because he wants to win the Nobel Peace Prize desperately." Hong then adds: "The money that he is giving to North Korea could buy food for the millions of South Korean children who are now starving because their parents lost jobs as a result of President Kim's lopsided reform policies."

Two sides taking pot shots at each other - that pretty much sums up the prelude to South Korea's parliamentary elections. On April 13, the MDP, the GNP and a few other smaller parties will be vying for 273 seats in the National Assembly. The race is likely to be tight between the two main parties, and mudslinging and petty sniping have characterized their bid to jockey for every possible advantage. Their candidates have also resorted to those old faithfuls - regional sentiments and money politics - to pick up the votes. Despite a clear public desire for change, the proceedings have largely been marked by politics as usual.

Thus, voter apathy and cynicism have pervaded the official campaign period, which kicked off on March 28. "The candidates have failed to bring good ideas and inspire voters," says one schoolteacher. A restaurant manager at a downtown hotel admits: "I don't even know the names of the candidates in my constituency."

For those not jaded by the whole process, the polls represent a chance to cast a verdict on Kim Dae Jung's achievements so far. "The elections are a midterm evaluation of the presidency of Kim," says Lee Hoi Chang, whom Kim defeated in the 1997 presidential race. Performing well in the elections is all the more important to Kim, since his party has split up with its former coalition partner, the United Liberal Democrats (ULD).

Where economic recovery is concerned, there is no question that President Kim has done well. Growth is back to the pre-Crisis norm of double-digit figures. Foreign-exchange reserves now exceed $80 billion, up from a low of $7 billion two years ago. Unemployment has gone down from a peak of over 8% to under 5%. The international credit rating of South Korea has improved from "unsuitable" to "suitable" for investment grade. Even the opposition parties concede that Kim has done a good job in pulling the country out of recession.

But Kim's record elsewhere is patchier. A centerpiece of his agenda is the Sunshine Policy - a soft, conciliatory approach toward North Korea aimed at gradually opening up the hermit regime. The Hyundai business group is currently operating a tour package to the North's Mount Kumgang, and the government hopes that this will lead to further South Korean and foreign investments, as well as to a reunion of families split up by the Korean War. Pyongyang, however, has yet to respond to Kim's overtures in any meaningful way, and the GNP charges that the Hyundai venture has done little more than fill the coffers of the North's military. Any policy toward Pyongyang, GNP leaders say, must be based on the principle of reciprocity.

The president's reform program, too, has been a target of critics. Kim came into office with promises to revamp a number of areas - notably, politics, finance, chaebol (conglomerates) and labor - but his efforts have run into strong resistance. His political opponents scuppered his plan to overhaul the current money-driven parliamentary election system. Unions are balking at what they see as Kim's tilt away from workers' interests (see story page 30). Doctors and teachers have protested against attempts to reform the medical and education sectors.

Despite Kim's success in forcing the country's bloated business groups to restructure, reform of the chaebol also remains unfinished. A key element in chaebol reform is ensuring that a conglomerate is run by its board of directors, rather than its founding family. But Finance Minister Lee Hun Jai admits that this edict has been ignored - as demonstrated by Hyundai's recent family feud over succession. During the course of settling the matter, founder and patriarch Chung Ju Yung, who is neither a shareholder nor a board member of Hyundai Securities, ordered the transfer of that company's chairman to another Hyundai company. "This is completely absurd," says Eugene Chung of Jardine Fleming Securities in Seoul.

Another key campaign issue is corruption. In the weeks running up to the elections, the administration has been engaged in various anticorruption pushes, including investigations for draft-dodging and tax evasion. The National Election Commission also announced that it would reveal the names of candidates with criminal records. Given that these moves have hit a number of oppositionists, the GNP and the ULD say Kim is trying to discredit his opponents on the eve of the polls.

Contributing to the anticorruption campaign is the Citizens' Coalition for the General Elections, composed of civic action groups. In January, the CCGE released a blacklist of 66 lawmakers it deemed corrupt and unfit to run for office. (Many of them were nominated by their parties anyway.) This time, the CCGE has unveiled the names of 86 candidates it says people should not vote for. Election watchers say that the CCGE's influence poses an unknown factor in the polls.

But with many voters jaded, the defining factor in these elections could well be that old scourge: regionalism. The southwestern Cholla region is likely to remain loyal to its native son Kim, and the MDP is expected to make a clean sweep of the 29 seats on offer. The Kyongsang provinces to the southeast are the stronghold of the GNP, which is expected to win at least 61 of the 65 seats being contested there. The central Chungchong provinces belong to the ULD. In the meantime, all the parties are fighting hard in the cities of Seoul and Inchon and in the neighboring provinces of Kyonggi and Kangwon, which account for 109 seats and are less swayed by regional sentiments.

Considering the tightness of the race, it is unlikely that the MDP, which currently does not have a majority in the National Assembly, will attain it after the polls. (The MDP is forecast to win around 110 seats, the GNP about 120.) This means Kim will have to forge a new coalition if he is not to serve out the remaining three years as a lame-duck president. Barring mass defections from other parties, he may have to seek rapprochement with Lee Hoi Chang and the GNP. But a senior GNP official notes: "There is no chemistry between the two to work together in the name of national interest." The only chance, he says, is for Lee to be statesmanlike and help Kim on the issues where the two have the fewest differences. Given the factional nature of Korean politics, however, it is a faint hope.

No Longer Labor's Hero
How Kim lost a key segment of his support
By LAXMI NAKARMI Seoul

To many of South Korea's union leaders, President Kim Dae Jung is a traitor to their cause. During his days as a dissident and an oppositionist, Kim was known for his pro-labor sympathies. Thus, when he was elected president in late 1997, the unions, which had campaigned for him, had high hopes that he would put an end to some of the "unfair" labor practices. The labor groups were looking to repeal the law that prevented a company from paying the salaries of employees who were union officials. They also wanted Kim to eliminate a provision that prohibited third-party intervention during labor disputes.

But they were to be disappointed. Even before his inauguration, Kim was moving away from the radical left. "He began to listen to foreigners and other groups who were lobbying hard against labor unions," says Kwon Young Gil, leader of the new Democratic Labor Party (DLP). All of them, he says, wanted flexibility in the labor market (translation: companies can lay off workers at will). President Kim created a tripartite council - representing the government, the chaebol and labor - to form new labor regulations. But the proceedings were later rejected by the powerful Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a militant labor umbrella group then headed by Kwon. "The voice of the KCTU was not heard by the council," says a senior KCTU official. "We boycotted the council meetings several times, but to no avail."

The government went ahead without the KCTU's support and made changes to the law that allowed companies to carry out layoffs and hire workers on a contractual basis. Over a million jobs were lost as a result of the layoff provision, says the KCTU official, and nowadays nearly all workers are hired on contract. "We've lost our job security," says former KCTU head Lee Kap Yong, who is now challenging two-time lawmaker Chung Mong Jun, a son of Hyundai founder Chung Ju Yung, in the city of Ulsan.

Concluding that they could not count on President Kim, Kwon and Lee founded the DLP in January to further their cause in the political arena. The DLP's goals include a five-day, 40-hour work week; job security for contractual and part-time workers; and an improvement in social welfare and in minimum-wage rates.

For all the strength of South Korea's militant unions, the DLP is not likely to become anything more than a fringe political player. Still, Kim was recently reminded of the voting bloc he has lost: On April 6, workers at Hyundai Motor were to go on strike to demand an increase in their wages.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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