Future of Political Reforms Uncertain in South Korea

December 27, 1992|By RAY HWANGBO

SEOUL KOREA — Seoul, Korea. -- On one street corner in this capital city, bands of riot police stand sentry against potential civil disturbances. On another, Koreans chat easily with a visitor about who they voted for, and why, in the recent presidential election.

They are signs of the democratic reforms carried out by the Roh Tae-woo government, as well as of the work that remains to be done. Stepping into the role of chief government reformer is President-elect Kim Young-sam, who called for a "New Korea" during his campaign.

Two of the issues that Mr. Kim may take up are general amnesty for political prisoners and greater freedoms for labor unions. But it's difficult to make predictions, since no one knows his true political leanings.

For 36 years, Mr. Kim was an opposition leader who challenged military dictators and fought for democracy. But in 1990, he merged his party with the ruling Democratic Justice Party, which became the Democratic Liberal Party. Some people saw it as a move to further his political career, but Mr. Kim said he did it to overcome legislative gridlock in the National Assembly.

Political observers quibble as to whether Mr. Kim has really become a member of the establishment, or whether he is still committed to democratic reforms.

"He still has those ideals," said one diplomat. "[But] I believe he will go quite cautiously because the people who supported him are quite conservative."

Han Sung-joo, a political science professor at Korea University, disagreed.

"I don't think he has a strong incentive to change the political system as it exists now," he said.

Mr. Roh helped establish democracy in Korea by allowing direct presidential elections in 1987, greater press and speech freedoms, and a wider range of labor activities. His government repealed a 1980 law which provided for government censorship and control of news organizations.

These days, people speak their minds without worrying that they will be harassed by the police, public prosecutor's office, intelligence agencies or other government agencies. Mr. Roh apparently created an atmosphere where these types of activities are not tolerated, Dr. Han said.

But the professor added that unlawful political activities of government officials have not been wiped out, citing allegations that government agencies helped ruling-party candidates in the March assembly elections, and that Pusan city officials discussed illegal ways of getting out the vote for Mr. Kim.

Mr. Kim may consider general amnesty for political prisoners such as the Rev. Moon Ik-won, who visited North Korea in 1989 without government permission, and Im Soo-kyung, who represented her college student organization at a world youth sports festival held in North Korea that same year. He may also allow labor unions greater freedom to organize workers and hold strikes than they now have.

Mr. Kim is not likely to push big policy changes when it comes to reunification or the economy. In the North-South talks, Mr. Kim is expected to take the same firm stance as Mr. Roh in insisting that North Korea submit to inspections of its nuclear sites as proof that it is not developing atomic weapons.

Ahn Byung-joon, a Yonsei University professor who is an adviser to the Unification Board, predicted that North Korea would eventually permit inspections, allowing the two sides to negotiate family and economic exchanges.

"China will do something to persuade North Korea to abandon the nuclear option," Dr. Ahn said. "It is inconceivable for me to think China would allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons."

The ninth round of high-level prime ministers' talks between North and South Korea, which was scheduled for Dec. 21 to 24, was canceled by North Korea, citing the South's plans to resume the "Team Spirit" joint military exercises with the United States next year. The talks have been hung up on the inspection issue since last year.

On the domestic front, Mr. Kim intends to shake up the government bureaucracy by making it leaner, more accountable and less corrupt. He intends to lay off some government workers, raise the salaries of others and try to instill a greater sense of responsibility. By upping salaries to be competitive with private industry, he hopes to reduce the incentive to accept bribes.

Like Mr. Roh, Mr. Kim is expected to emphasize price stability over fast-paced economic growth. According to reports, Mr. Kim will be gunning for growth rates of 7 to 8 percent and an inflation rate of 3 percent or less. During the mid-'80s, Korea enjoyed double-digit economic growth rates, but also experienced spiraling housing and consumer prices.

A growing concern in Korea is its trade deficit. Korea's balance of payments shifted from a $15 billion surplus in 1987 to a $10 billion deficit last year. Analysts blame the situation on the decreasing competitiveness of Korean products in the international market. Mr. Kim plans to boost the performance of Korean products by investing in the development of technology. In addition, he is reportedly thinking of establishing a new ministry devoted solely to trade issues.

Despite the challenges ahead, Kim Hae-yong, 70, president of a medium-sized trading company, said he is confident of Mr. Kim's economic leadership.

"I have the will to work even harder. There won't be any barriers to my work," he said.

Kay Hwangbo is a free-lance writer based in Seoul.

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