Verdict On Kim

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With South Korea facing legislative elections, the President's reputation is on the line. Many voters feel he hasn't delivered on his promises

Woo Sang Ho, candidate for the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, picks up a plastic bag full of empty bottles and flings it onto a truck headed for the recycling center. On a patch of ground behind him, workers with faces browned by the winter sun sort piles of dirty bottles and cans. With smoke billowing out over the site from a pile of garbage burning on an adjacent lot, this is hardly the carefully orchestrated campaign photo-op that Korean politicians tend to favor. But Woo, 38, is trying to make a point. A lot of people compare Korean politics to garbage, says the former student leader. By coming here I'm trying to show that I want to clean things up.

With legislative elections set for April 13, how to clean things up is the question on everybody's mind. Two years into the presidency of reformist Kim Dae Jung, Korea's economy has come roaring back from recession. But in the realm of politics, it is business as usual: corruption-tainted candidates, rampant vote-buying, mudslinging and factional feuding. Although the campaign doesn't officially kick off until this week, it is shaping up to be one of the most expensive--and dirtiest--in decades. Many Koreans feel Kim has failed to deliver on promises to root out corruption and modernize politics. And though he himself is not on the ballot, the election in many ways is a referendum on Kim's rule. Signing a petition in downtown Seoul in support of cleaner politics, theology student Kim Ko Eun describes her disappointment: People had high expectations. But we still see the same old corrupt politics.

That may be about to change. A coalition of citizens' groups rocked the political establishment earlier this year by posting a blacklist of corrupt politicians on the Internet. Disgruntled voters like Kim Ko Eun are signing the coalition's petitions, pledging to shun tainted politicians at the polls. Civic groups have even taken on the chaebol, Korea's powerful conglomerates, using lawsuits, shareholder initiatives and other tactics to end rotten corporate practices. Young people like Woo are running for office in record numbers, challenging party elders. Capturing the mood, a chart-topping pop song called Change urges Koreans to change, change, change the world. The rise of the civic movement, says Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Seoul's Korea University, is a breath of fresh air. Korea is moving closer to practicing democracy instead of just talking about it.

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History Comes Tumbling Down The election poses a threat to President Kim and his reform policies. A poor showing by Kim's Millennium Democratic Party, which has only 98 seats in the 299-member National Assembly (Kim's reforms will reduce the number to 273), could embolden old-guard politicians and chaebol leaders who would prefer to roll back Kim's economic reforms. And that would have a spillover effect throughout society, blocking the trend toward transparency and accountability that Kim has put at the center of his economic reforms. The latest opinion polls suggest that Kim's party is up against cutthroat competition from the opposing Grand National Party, making it difficult for Kim to win the majority. This vote will decide which political forces dominate Korean politics in the future, says Yang Seung Hahm, an expert in Korean politics at Seoul's Yonsei University.

Kim's economic record should be winning his party votes. He has brought the economy back from disaster to an annual growth rate of around 10.7%. But middle-class voters are still smarting from the job losses triggered by the crisis. There is resentment of the rich, many of whom made money from high interest rates during the downturn and are now making a killing in stocks. Moreover, this campaign's hot-button issue is corruption, and Kim is vulnerable. High-profile money scandals have brought down several ruling party figures, including a former Environment Minister. By quickly dismissing corruption-tainted officials, the President has preserved his reputation for perso0nal integrity. But his credibility has been hurt by an emerging sense that Captain Clean can't run a tight ship.

The election campaign is driving the point home. Candidates are already up to their usual shenanigans, handing out free restaurant coupons, fancy cakes and even cash to potential voters. For a fee, election brokers promise to deliver the vote from groups such as mountaineering clubs and alumni chapters. Other brokers with ties to local notables will, for a sum, make sure their clients continue to vote the right way.

With politicians already jockeying for position in the post-Kim era (his term ends in three years, and he can't succeed himself), the pressure to spend is enormous. The election limit averages less than $150,000 per district, but media reports say some will spend up to $2.7 million. Candidates apparently feel they won't face serious penalties if they violate campaign-finance laws. So many corrupt people are spending so much money on this election, says Park Won Soon, secretary general of the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. One of the new citizens' groups, the pspd was co-founded by Park in 1994. It started out as a pressure group to improve welfare policies but quickly expanded to include issues like political ethics and corporate transparency and accountability. It made a name for itself last year by winning an unprecedented lawsuit against executives at Korea First Bank for mismanaging shareholder funds. But the pspd really started to shake things up when it began going after politicians. With several other groups, the pspd last year tried to monitor corruption by attending National Assembly committee meetings. Sometimes its members weren't even allowed in the door. And when they were, they realized a lot of the wheeling and dealing was going on elsewhere. So in January, the pspd and an umbrella coalition of more than 450 civic groups took an unprecedented step, compiling a list of 67 politicians it considers tainted by corruption or by ties to past authoritarian governments. The coalition released the names at a televised news conference and posted the list on its website.

It was a bombshell. The public applauded, and newspapers front-paged the list. But the politicians fought back, arguing (correctly) that Korea's election law bars citizens' groups from politics. The coalition, the Citizen's Alliance for the 2000 General Election, received a flood of menacing phone calls, faxes and letters, including a fire-bomb threat. President Kim finally stepped in and successfully pressured lawmakers to rewrite the election rules. The list stayed posted. We didn't expect such enormous public support, says Park. We just tapped into nationwide discontent over corruption in politics.

The campaign may have stirred public opinion, but the major parties, including Kim's Millennium Democrats, nonetheless went ahead and nominated many of the blacklisted candidates. As a result, citizens' groups are now urging voters to sign a pledge to shun those on the list. Last week, group leaders launched an 11-city bus tour to collect 2.27 million signatures--10,000 for each of the 227 National Assembly seats up for grabs (an additional 46 seats will be parceled out under a proportional system). The public reaction is enthusiastic, says Chung Eun Sook, a campaign organizer.

That energy was on display last week at a sign-up table on a busy street in Myong-dong, a hip shopping area in downtown Seoul. A steady flow of passersby stopped to sign the petition or buy buttons with slogans like Change, Change. Putting his name to the pledge, Yoo Seung Yol, a tailor, complains that, while he performed his obligatory military service, some politicians and their children use their influence to evade it. Corruption is rife, he says. But now it is the people who have power.

How much impact this movement will have on the election is uncertain. But mainstream parties are already jumping on the reform bandwagon. Earlier this year, politicians of all stripes scrambled to co-opt the pop song Change. But composer Choi Joon-young last month gave rights to his song to the Association of Pop Music Composers, Lyricists and Arrangers, which is part of the civic coalition. The association promptly announced that blacklisted politicians couldn't use Change for their campaigns--or any of the thousands of songs for which its members hold the copyright.

None of this would have been possible without the political space opened by President Kim. As a long-time dissident imprisoned under Korea's military dictatorships, he came to office promising to promote democratic freedoms. But critics say he has gone soft, fearful of alienating his political allies. He made compromises, says Park of the pspd. Soon after Kim came to power, Park says, the group approached him about a package of anti-corruption bills it had crafted. In a meeting at the Blue House, however, Park opted for caution. He told me we were going too fast already, says Park. (Mr. Park's recollection of the exchange isn't quite accurate, the President told Time, blaming opposition lawmakers instead for blocking reform legislation.)

The election also marks the coming of age of young leaders like Woo. Koreans call them the 386 generation: people in their 30s who went to college in the '80s and were born in the '60s. Generally more reform-minded than their elders, many 386-ers earned their first political spurs battling riot police in demonstrations against past dictatorships. As student-union head at Seoul's Yonsei University, Woo called strongman Chun Doo Hwan a fascist in an interview with a U.S. newspaper, which earned him four months in jail. Less than a decade later, Chun found himself in prison, as authoritarianism gave way to democracy. Woo cried when he heard the news: Sitting in my cell in solitary, how could I ever have imagined that Chun would one day be sitting here, too? Of course, Woo also couldn't imagine he would one day be running for parliament.

Han Seung Min represents another slice of this new generation: young professionals who weren't student activists but are tired of politics as usual. An economist and former Miss Seoul, Han is running for the opposition Grand National Party, the political nemesis of Woo's Millennium Democrats. But she shares the former student leader's distaste for political sleaze. People in her district, she says, are angry over a lack of cultural centers for the elderly and other much-needed facilities. They blame politicians for pocketing public funds. Says Han: Something has to be done.

There's one other factor driving this election: regional rivalry. Polls last week indicated that the majority of Koreans plan to vote along regional lines. That's bad news for President Kim, whose power base in southeastern Cholla province isn't big enough to give his party a majority. All but one of the previous five presidents came from neighboring Kyungsang province, which meant factories and roads for Kyungsang, but economic backwardness for Cholla. These days, however, Kyungsang politicians grouse that Kim is doling out plum government jobs to his Cholla friends. Kyungsang feels persecuted, says political analyst Yang Seung Hahm.

It will take more than one President, one election or even one generation to heal these divisions and clean up the legacy of authoritarian rule. But bringing in new talent--and kicking some of the old bums out--surely won't hurt. Woo plunged into politics last year to try to shake up the system. It is the political heavies who are blocking efforts to change, but their generation will disappear, says Woo, after tossing the last bag of old bottles onto the recycling truck--a perfect metaphor for what he hopes to do to those political heavies at the polls.

With reporting by Stella Kim/Seoul