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South Korean democracy

Mainichi Shimbun, Tuesday 29 February 2000

On Feb. 24, the United Liberal Democrats (ULD), the party of former South Korean Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil, declared that it would terminate its coalition with President Kim Dae-jung’s Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). The shocking announcement came just a day before the third anniversary of Kim Dae-jung’s presidency and could trigger an erosion of his power base.

The ULD apparently figured that it would not fare as well in South Korea’s upcoming general elections if it remained allied with the MDP. It made this decision in spite of President Kim’s recent successes in the economic and diplomatic arenas. The economy has made a remarkable recovery over the past two years. The growth rate surpassed 10 percent last year, the unemployment rate fell to 4 percent, and South Korea’s foreign currency reserves exceeded 60 billion dollars. Reforms of financial institutions and conglomerates have begun to take effect.

President Kim has also opened South Korea to imports of Japanese popular culture, including movies and music, and is responsible for a dramatic improvement in South Korea’s image in Japan. His sunshine policy toward North Korea has yet to yield major gains, but since it is part of a long-term strategy for reintegrating North Korea into the international community, it would not be fair to expect quick results.

But his impressive achievements have not translated into a high approval rating. President Kim’s approval rating reached 95 percent immediately after he took office but has subsided to around 40 percent in recent surveys due to an endless string of scandals involving high-level government officials and senior members of the ruling parties.

In addition, the president’s overwhelming reliance on people from his home province to fill positions in the government has also attracted criticism. Until he came to power, people from Kyongsang province had dominated the government and the army leadership. But in his attempt to break the Kyongsang monopoly in one fell swoop, he has triggered a backlash.

The international community is interested in democracy’s progress in South Korea. In the past, Kim Dae-jung has been a fighter for the cause of democracy and has criticized Asian nations that limit political freedoms. But has South Korea witnessed a dramatic expansion of media freedoms and more open criticism of its government and leaders? Ironically, international organizations do not evaluate South Korea’s media policies highly.

South Korea’s authoritarian political culture remains deeply entrenched. In an attempt to demonstrate their loyalty, high-ranking officials and associates of the president have tried to muffle criticism of the president. Some officials have even tried to interfere in the personnel decisions of media groups.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the media are pillars of democracy. Tolerating unwanted criticism of those in power preserves the health of society and allows democracy to function.

When those surrounding high-ranking government officials and powerful leaders file defamation lawsuits against critics and reporters, they are committing a form of suppression of public opinion. Government institutions and high-ranking officials ought to counter their critics by appealing to the court of public opinion.