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NOVEMBER 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Asiaweek Pictures.

Looking Back
Youth Mans a New Front: SOUTH KOREA, JUNE 1987

Toothpaste was a major youth accessory in the summer of 1987. It soothed the teargas burns. Pleading with riot police to support the uprising was a popular tactic as well, right. But soon there was plenty of company for the tens of thousands of frustrated South Korean students filling streets across the country. Inspired by the youthful fight for democratic change, Koreans from all colors of the social spectrum joined the protest. After all, they had spent the past two decades building an economic miracle. Now they wanted some commensurate political power to show for their labors. People Power Korean-style had arrived.

At first, President Chun Doo Hwan was unmoved. With the Seoul Olympics looming, he had decided to shelve political reform and to name the ruling party chairman, Roh Tae Woo, as his heir apparent. But as the waves of protest multiplied and the insurrection entered its third week, Chun made some concessions. He shook hands for the first time with opposition leader Kim Young Sam. He released from his 55th spell under house arrest Kim's fellow oppositionist, Kim Dae Jung. Chun indicated he might even chat about a few reforms.

It wasn't enough — not even for Roh, who threatened to resign unless Chun agreed to opposition demands. Just days later, Chun endorsed an eight-point reform package that included direct presidential elections and an amnesty for South Korea's estimated 3,000 political prisoners. The switch marked the first genuine initiatives for democratic change by the ruling side in the history of modern Korea. And Roh chose the most risky option — an election — to achieve the most valued goal: legitimacy. After 17 days and 351,200 teargas shells, the people had their victory.

Today Korea is a full-fledged democracy. The economic miracle is being rebuilt. The cosy relationship between old political strongmen and big business is dead. Students are busy protesting against U.S. military bases — and pushing for more transparency in business and politics. It's a whole New Korea.

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