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Internet Changed Culture of S. Korean Vote

By Doug Struck, The Washington Post, Saturday, April 15, 2000; Page A14

SEOUL, April 14—The Internet emerged in Thursday’s South Korean parliamentary elections as a powerful political tool that will affect how future elections are run here and perhaps elsewhere in Asia, according to politicians and analysts today.

If there is any doubt, they say, just ask 58 of the losing candidates. The Internet played an instrumental role in their defeat.

The Internet has proven itself to be a medium to be reckoned with, said Auh Taik Sup, a professor of mass communications at Korea University and president of the Korean Cyber-Communications Society.

In the South Korean election campaign, the Internet was used to bypass a timid mainstream media and publish what proved to be damning and crucial information about the unsavory records of some parliamentary candidates.

The Web also became a virtual Speakers’ Corner for free political expression, usually exercised warily in South Korea by a populace that was under dictatorial control for more than three decades. And it was the catalyst for organizing hundreds of grass-roots citizens groups into a powerful national force.

We helped create a culture where people could debate, said Lee Kyoung Suk, 29, who ran the umbrella citizens group’s Web operation. Our site was the only marketplace where people could express their opinion.

The umbrella citizens group pried from the National Elections Commission information showing 15 percent of the candidates had serious criminal records, and many others were tax evaders or draft dodgers. They published a blacklist of 86 unfit candidates on the Internet site, complete with pages of details and background.

Never before in electoral history have the candidates been so nakedly exposed, Auh said. Fifty-eight of the 86 candidates lost, including several political heavyweights.

The citizens group campaign turned out to be the only clear winner in the election, in which voters kept a split parliament and no party achieved a majority. The opposition Grand National Party won 133 of the 273 seats, and President Kim Dae Jung’s Millennium Democratic Party won 115.

Kim, who is starting his third year of a five-year term as president, still will have the dominant hand in controlling policy under South Korea’s weak parliamentary system, but the main political parties will attempt to form coalitions according to the issues at hand.

Those lawmakers will be paying closer attention to citizen lobbyists demanding more democratic reforms, following the success of the group’s effort this election, said one of the civic group organizers, Park Won Soon.

The civic group campaign owes much to the cyber-networks, said Park Jai Chang, a professor of public administration at Seoul’s Sook Myung Women’s University. We saw a tip of it in the last election, but this is the first election where the use of the Internet has been so widespread.

The umbrella organization was formed with the cooperation of about 600 individual groups. That collaboration was possible only by meeting on the Internet, the organizers said.

Can you imagine so many groups getting together in a few months? It’s totally against Korean culture, mused one supporter of the ruling party.

The group set up a Web server, borrowed a half-dozen personal computers from their respective organizations and created a Web site bulging with information about the candidates. The group pressed the election commission to release criminal records and other pertinent material. Rather than do so on the civic group’s site, the commission published the material on its own site.

It was explosive. The response was beyond our imagination, said Kim Jae Wang, the election commission official in charge of the Internet operation.

The site was popular, and on election day it registered 1.1 million visitors, he said.

Using that information and other records, the civic grouping devised its blacklist and published it on its Web page. Without the Internet, the group’s impact would have been very much limited, Auh said.

When the group first published its blacklist of politicians, he noted, two of the leading daily newspapers balked at running the names. But that decision was quickly overtaken by the publication of the names on the Internet, and in quick order by other newspapers.

The established press did not cover the whole story, so we had to work against that to provide information, fairly, said Lee.

It is a function of the Internet that may be a model for other nations in Asia, where acceptance of the Internet is growing rapidly and the established press is often unreliable.

Korea is relatively out front on this, said Park. But other nations will follow. You can see on the ’chat rooms’ the thirst for people to get information.

The bulletin board and chat room set up on the civic groups’ site turned out to be a lively political forum, said Lee. She and others believe the public discussion there reverberated in the media and elsewhere in society.

Ironically, South Koreans in their twenties and thirties frequented the chat rooms, but the voter turnout among those younger citizens was low.

Without our site, it would have been a lot worse, said Lee. A lot of young people have an absolute phobia about politics. We were able to give them some information to try to cure that.

The young people are interested in the Internet, but they don’t want to get up and go outside to the polls, said Yoon Sock Joong, an assistant press secretary for President Kim and a student of politics.

Like most of the National Assembly members, Congressman Kim Min Suk set up a home page. His assistant in charge of the effort, Yoon Jae Kwan, said he does not think self-promotional Web sites bring more votes, but sites like the civic group’s are playing a crucial role.

TV was the most effective tool in this campaign, he said. But in the next one, it will be the Internet.