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Mix of Idealism and Comic Books : In Korean Campaign, Image Is Everything

November 22, 1987|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — The "Commoner of Yonhidong," dressed in a blue business suit and carrying a pennant promoting democracy, strides across the cover of a comic book that is making the rounds in South Korea.

Who is this man, caricatured with Dumbo ears and flashing the victory sign? Why, it's Roh Tae Woo, the ruling party's presidential nominee, just an ordinary citizen of Yonhidong, a neighborhood in western Seoul. Or so it says in his campaign comic book.

But isn't Roh the former general, the man who helped move troops to Seoul to support a December, 1979, army mutiny that set the stage for a military coup five months later? Well, yes, but his image-makers would rather depict him as the friend of democracy and the common man who, on June 29, threw his support behind far-reaching reforms for South Korea.

"We're pursuing the trinity idea," explained Chin Kyung Tak, deputy director of the ruling Democratic Justice Party's publicity bureau. "June 29 equals democratization equals Roh Tae Woo. By doing that, we will reduce his image as a military man."

At the respective headquarters of opposition politicians Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, the image-makers are busy, too, approving posters and campaign slogans and thinking about delivering their message through tape recordings and videotapes.

The Dec. 16 election, the country's first open presidential test in 16 years, promises both ballyhoo and high political drama. The opposition seeks to shake off decades of repressive, military-dominated rule. The two Kims were among the victims. The ruling party seems determined to change its stripes, promoting Roh's June 29 call for an open, democratic system as a response to "the people's will."

The result is a mix of idealism and gloss, ambition and comic books.

Lee Man Woo, the jovial general administrator of Kim Young Sam's campaign, recently laid out the approach of his candidate: "First, to present him as a fighter for the opposition in the struggle to overthrow the military government."

Kim's comic book, entitled "24th Hour at Sangdodong (his Seoul neighborhood)," recounts his tribulations as a longtime member of Parliament under a succession of military strongmen, but it accents the image of a moderate, a man of the middle supporting gradual change and clean government. The implication is that there would be no change with Roh and radical change with Kim Dae Jung.

On the cover of the comic book--300,000 copies were printed--Kim is shown smashing with his fists and feet boards representing the authoritarian constitution of the late President Park Chung Hee and last spring's refusal by the current president, Chun Doo Hwan, to reform the constitution. (Chun since has reversed himself.)

In person, gray has returned to Kim Young Sam's once-dyed hair, befitting a man of presidential stature. His followers raise their hands with thumbs and index fingers making a circle, the other fingers held straight out. The message is zero-three, in the Korean language pronounced Young Sam. This is new for this campaign.

Military Man

Roh's staff has a bigger problem with image-building. Their man was handpicked by Chun to succeed him in the presidency. He was a career military man until 1981, when Chun moved him into government. And he lacked the name identification of the two Kims, whose long struggles were well known even though they were non-persons in the government-controlled press.

And just as the official campaign got under way recently, the December, 1979, mutiny came back to haunt the candidate as the opposition demanded a full accounting of his role. His explanation of the incident at a press conference did not satisfy his rivals. For Roh, at least in image-making, it has been tough from the start.

"Frankly," said Chin, the publicity bureau official and former journalist, "just after June 10 (when Roh was nominated), we were in a difficult position. The students and riot police were clashing in the streets. I was disappointed about our prospects.

"But then came June 29 (when Roh endorsed direct elections) and the situation changed. I got calls of support from my college and newspaper friends."

That date--June 29--produced the Roh campaign's strategy. The Roh comic book, "The Commoner of Yonhidong," depicts the candidate as a man who made "a lonely and heroic decision," Chin said.

The military image remains the biggest problem; steps are being taken to counteract it.

Returning from his trip to Washington and Tokyo in September, the candidate was seen on television newscasts carrying his own briefcase, not having it toted by an aide as a general might. The impression was deliberate.

"Let me put it this way," Chin said. "A candidate is no longer a private person. He belongs to the public. There's some stage-acting involved."

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