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Korea Makes the Magic Connection

By linking accountability and power, Seoul's political culture may be transformed. The U.S. should cheer louder.

September 03, 1996|Tom Plate | Times columnist Tom Plate also teaches at UCLA. E-mail:

HONOLULU — In their struggle against the external enemy of foreign occupation, then the internal enemy of military authoritarianism, Koreans may well assign the developments of the summer of 1996 a special place in their history. Or will they? Do all these showy crackdowns on two former South Korean presidents, for repression and corruption, and four big-league businessmen, for bribery, really mean anything? "Yes," insisted a well-connected Korean journalist attending a nicely timed international conference on Korea here, "It means there'll never be another coup."

I was struck by his answer. As the United States grinds through its quadrennial rite of passage to certify its next national government, Americans deserve to be reminded of what has been achieved in America--a remarkable system for the routine, peaceful transition of power that is the envy of much of the world. Exactly this quality of political life has long eluded South Korea, a U.S. ally which, while it is one of the world's economic success stories, may only now be on the verge of becoming a political success, too.

Claremont-McKenna College professor Chae-Jin Lee, who moderated last week's second annual conference of Korean and American journalists at Hawaii's prestigious East-West Center, explained: "For the last three decades, the military was the dominant force in Korean society. What President Kim Young Sam is doing is trying to restore a proper balance between the civilian and the military."

Americans deserve to take some pride in this. America has always sought, as a centerpiece of its foreign policy (and perhaps, too, as an aspect of our titanic, ethnocentric national ego), the export of democratic values and processes to the rest of the world. But the rest of the world hasn't always wanted our special gift. For central to our approach is the emphasis on the rule of law and on the principle that no one, not even a top politician or businessman or general or party official, should escape accountability under the law. Even imperfectly followed, it's a rule that is not wildly popular with many Asian rulers. And it's precisely that idea that appears to be on the verge of taking root in South Korea. Will it?

One promising sign is that many of the leading Korean journalists at the conference, titled "The Opening of North Korea and the Role of the Korean and American Media," hardly bothered to conceal their pride, and, in some instances, deep personal satisfaction, at observing two former presidents face the music for their autocratic and sometimes murderous ways. To many of them, Korea seems to have turned a page on a sordid past. "We must clear the air before we can go forward," says Whang Byong-Sun, editorial writer for the Seoul Shinmun.

Not everyone attending the conference, cosponsored by Seoul's influential Korean Press Center, were prepared to banish the cynicism that comes with the territory of being not only journalists covering politicians but also seasoned observers of the well-known periodic routine whereby incumbent Korean politicians all but torture their predecessors. (Though what's unprecedented is that the prosecutions never extended to former presidents.) Police-student clashes, albeit overplayed by Western media, continue in the streets of Seoul; so does cynicism about the motives of President Kim Young Sam, who spoke so proudly of his reforms in a speech in Los Angeles Monday night. Is Kim, who has publicly vowed "to right the wrongs of history," merely a ruthless revenge-taker? Or in fact the father of modern Korean democracy? Even if history never tags Kim as a Korean Abe Lincoln, and even if he reduces the penalties on the former presidents (for one, death), thus diluting the cathartic effect of the stern sentences, the dramatic sense of passage would hardly vanish.

"The culture is changing," said Pyo Wan Soo, editorial writer for the Kyunghyang Daily News. Pyo should know. In the early 1980s, the military regime booked him a room in the slammer, a special accommodation they sometimes provided journalists whose copy displeased them. He did not resume newspapering until 1988. But repression wasn't the only aspect of Korea that turned his stomach. "No more envelopes," said a happy Pyo last week, describing in painful detail the system, until recently, of poorly paid journalists being slipped envelopes of money--bribes, really--from politicians returning favors for positive press coverage. Added Pyo, like a plagued man finally ridding himself of an embarrassing skin disease: "Korea today is not like it was."

I'm hardly saying that Korea couldn't backslide. Not at all. But on the evidence so far, isn't all this pretty significant? Why no flowers and singing telegrams from Washington? Why, on the contrary, is it like "Seoul who?" Last week in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, senior Clinton administration officials met, partied with and toasted a bunch of Asian dissidents, including the husband of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as leading activists from Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere. They had been flown in, as if they were prized borrowed pictures at an exhibition. OK, they're good people. But, pardon my kimchi-loving soul, can't the Brie and Chardonnay crowd in the Clinton administration recognize real pro-democracy people when they see them? While they still have a way to go, the South Koreans are moving further down the road to real democracy than anyone might have expected. I propose a toast.

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