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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SOUTH KOREA

The Kims' Last Hurrah
Candidates struggle against voter cynicism

By Sangwon Suh and Assif Shameen / Seoul


ON AN UNUSUALLY COLD, damp evening in a vacant railroad yard in Seoul's Yongsan district, veteran opposition leader Kim Dae Jung stands on a platform, facing several thousand local residents. "These elections are a mid-term assessment of President Kim Young Sam!" he shouts. "The people's assessment is that he has been a big failure!" The crowd bursts into applause and roars its approval as Kim raises his hands and beams with pleasure.

Despite the rhetoric, Kim Young Sam is not up for re-election. On April 11, Koreans go to the polls to choose 299 members of the National Assembly -- 253 from single-member districts, and 46 from proportional rolls. But the election, like mid-term elections everywhere, will be seen as the public's judgment on the president. Most political observers believe that Kim's followers will fall well short of a majority.

Kim's New Korea Party (NKP) was tipped to do poorly in the legislative elections before the president's vigorous prosecution of two ex-presidents from his own party (then known as the Democratic Liberal Party) gave him a needed boost in opinion polls. Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan are accused of massive corruption and treason. Electoral disaster was presaged by last June's landmark local elections, in which government party candidates were soundly drubbed across the country.

Realistically, Kim's supporters are hoping to win about 100 seats to ensure that the combined opposition does not have a two-thirds majority. That would significantly cripple Kim's ability to govern. Pundits predict that the NKP can probably win 85 of the electoral districts, 80 going to Kim Dae Jung's National Congress for New Politics and 36 for ex-prime minister Kim Jong Pil's United Liberal Democrats. The rest are too close to call.

To avoid future censure, it is vital for the president to maintain some legislative strength. So far, he has managed to avoid being directly connected with the two former presidents' huge, illegal political slush funds. But since the new legislature's four-year term extends past Kim's incumbency, the president needs to win as many assembly seats as possible, so that he can count on substantial support should he have to face hostile legislative hearings on corruption after his departure.

The continuing reports of massive corruption in high places have turned the electorate apathetic and cynical. The loudest noises have come from the politicians themselves, and most of what they say has been limited to bitter mudslinging. Sometimes rhetoric escalates into physical confrontation. In one incident, an argument over the best spot to deliver speeches led to a violent clash -- metal pipes and all -- between members of rival parties. Attendance at rallies has been low, and polls indicate that nearly half the voters are undecided.

Koreans are also growing weary of the same old faces. The so-called three Kims -- Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil, have dominated South Korean politics for nearly 30 years. All three were candidates in the presidential election nine years ago and the latter two have hinted that they plan to run again in 1997. The Kims are also accused of wanting to perpetuate their influence through their children. Kim Dae Jung's son is running for the assembly from the family's Cholla bastion. The president's son is an influential party fund-raiser.

The election pivots on Seoul, home to a quarter of the 45 million population. Politics in South Korea is highly localized. Kim Dae Jung has a lock on the Cholla region in the southwest. Kim Young Sam's supporters dominate the southeastern city of Taegu and the surrounding province of North Kyongsang, whose people have formed the core of the country's ruling establishment. But ever since the president turned against two of North Kyongsang's most famous sons, Chun and Roh, many have been falling away from the NKP and switching their allegiance to the conservative Kim Jong Pil.

Because tens of thousands of people have moved to the capital and its environs over the years in search of economic opportunities, old political loyalties are much weaker there, making it a neutral battleground. The big guns of Korean politics are concentrating their fire in Seoul, hoping to win over the city's many undecided voters. In this respect, the president's supporters have an invaluable asset in Park Chan Jong and his well-oiled city machine. An independent candidate in the last presidential campaign, Park is running for the assembly on the NKP ticket .

But Kim Young Sam's supporters still must clear many hurdles. The president's cause was dealt a blow when his close aide Chang Hak Ro was arrested March 23 for corruption -- again raising the question about how clean the president really is. Evidence produced so far shows that Chang had acquired at least $6 million since 1993, mainly as donations from businessmen seeking favors from the presidential office. Then a 20-year-old law student died during a demonstration against national college tuition hikes -- the first such death during Kim's term. Other protesters claimed that he was clubbed to death by police, though doctors have said that there is no evidence of a severe beating.

Whatever the electoral outcome, the sun is setting on the three-Kims era. Even if the opposition Kims decide to contest the 1997 presidential election, Kim Young Sam will be gone, constitutionally unable to serve another term. His campaign manager Lee Hoi Chang is being mooted as his possible successor. "This election is finally going to change everything," says independent Assemblyman Hong Sa Duk. "This is the last battle in which we will see all these players." Many Koreans will feel that it is about time.


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