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Grass roots campaign takes hold among South Korean electorate

Reuters, Asia Now, 28 January 2000

SEOUL, Korea (Reuters)—A grassroots campaign that has rocked the Korean political establishment appears to be a by-product of economic liberalization and the explosive growth of the Internet over the past two years, analysts say.

An alliance of nearly 500 citizens groups has issued lists of politicians they describe as incompetent, corrupt and lazy who should be disqualified for the April 13 general elections.

The movement has resonated with a disgruntled electorate, who according to opinion polls, are in a mood to throw out the established parties in favor of a crop of small, new ones that use the Internet to organize themselves.

I think this is the most interesting political movement in Asia since the People Power revolution in the Philippines in the 1980s, said one senior diplomat in Seoul. If the Chinese are watching this, they must be sitting back and saying, ’whoa’.

The late Philippines strongman president, Ferdinand Marcos, was driven from power in 1986 by massive street demonstrations.

But South Korea, which ended decades of authoritarian rule through its own democracy movement in the 1980s, is seeing a 21st century version of People Power in the form of cyberpolitics.

Activist Web sites clogged

Web sites of Korean activist groups have been jammed up from users plugging in to see whose political skeletons will come tumbling out of the closet next.

And in another manifestation of the rise of cyberpolitics, the Internet Korea Party (www.ikoreaparty.or.kr), was launched this month, aiming to use the internet to mobilize voters.

Anyone can take part in political activity thorough the computer net. Anyone can be the owner of a party. Also whenever, wherever, anyone who wants to take part in policy-making, (they) can do it. It’s a real democracy, the party says on its Web site.

The growing power of the Internet is sounding alarms across the region.

China clamped new controls onto the Internet on Wednesday to stop Web sites from leaking state secrets and an official newspaper said curbs on news content were on the way.

President Kim Dae-jung has, in a way, set the agenda for the citizens movement in Korea by proclaiming 2000 as the year of political reform.

The veteran democracy campaigner led the first opposition group to power in modern Korea after narrowly winning the 1997 presidential elections.

More fragmented parliament

But voters seem unimpressed with the reformist credentials of his Millennium Democratic Party. A survey on Tuesday by the leading Chosun Ilbo newspaper and the Gallup polling organization found only 20.1 percent supported the party.

The opposition Grand National Party fared little better with 18.1 percent and the junior party in Kim’s governing coalition, the United Liberal Democrats, had 2.7 percent.

A more fragmented parliament is likely after the polls, with new parties such as New Reform, the Democratic Labor Party and Hopeful New Korea—whose poll numbers are all comparable to the established parties—possibly holding the balance.

Political reform has lagged behind economic liberalization.

Since going hat in hand two years ago to the International Monetary Fund for a record $58.35 billion in the midst of the country’s worst economic crisis since the 1950-53 Korean War, the business and financial landscape has been reordered.

A political watershed may also have begun after the crisis when Korea flung open its capital markets, put out the welcome mat for foreign investment, and enacted legislation requiring more transparency and disclosure from the business world.

The financial crisis was about breaking down established economic power and vested interests, the senior diplomat said.

True reform politicians are a rarity because they have usually been financially backed by Korea’s large business conglomerates, known as chaebol.

Whittling down chaebol power

But President Kim’s economic reforms have been aimed at least in part at whittling down chaebol power and breaking the collusive links between big business and politics.

President Kim is almost alone among political party leaders to endorse the aims, if not the means, of the civic action groups to reform the system.

He is fond of saying that an open market economy and true democracy are like two wheels on a cart.

Speaking at a news conference this week, he said: I think we should further develop a participatory democracy and allow the people’s intent to be reflected even more in politics.

Korea’s system of government gives strong power to the presidency while the National Assembly has yet to mature into a true legislative body that can rise above the bickering partisan arena that has so turned off voters.

That means Kim, whose term in office ends in 2003, will likely try to ride the grassroots groundswell that he has helped trigger to press his political reform agenda after April’s elections.