The Road of No Return; President Roh Moo Hyun Seems Hapless. but He's Helped Kill South Korea's Imperial Presidency, Once and for All

By Caryl, Christian; Lee, B. J. et al. | Newsweek International, May 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Road of No Return; President Roh Moo Hyun Seems Hapless. but He's Helped Kill South Korea's Imperial Presidency, Once and for All


Caryl, Christian, Lee, B. J., Adams, Jonathan, Newsweek International


Byline: Christian Caryl and B. J. Lee (With Jonathan Adams in Taipei)

At first glance, South Korean politics looks bleak these days. President Roh Moo Hyun's approval ratings have dropped through the floor. His ruling Uri Party is coming apart at the seams as members defect en masse, desperately trying to put daylight between themselves and the struggling president. Roh himself even resigned from the party recently in the hope of saving its chances at the next presidential election, scheduled for this coming December.

Bad as all this sounds, however, one ingredient has been conspicuously absent: a sense of crisis. In many other Asian countries, investors would be heading for the exits by now. Not here, where GDP has grown 5 percent and the stock market 7 percent in the past year. Once upon a time, governmental chaos could have spurred a coup--as happened last year in Thailand and in South Korea itself in 1961 and 1979; today the prospect seems unthinkable. To be sure, a lot can happen in the months between now and the election, and South Korean politics are famously dramatic. But underneath the turmoil, the political fundamentals are growing stronger. Commentators now say that the country is well on its way to becoming one of Asia's most mature liberal democracies, with one of the few fairly stable two-party systems in the region (even Japan is effectively a one-party state). According to Freedom House, South Korea now ranks among the freest countries in the region. That's mostly thanks to reforms undertaken by its past few presidents--and, remarkably, by the much-maligned Roh himself.

South Korean society has also done its part. The cold-war passions that once pitted leftist students against the ultraconservative military have ebbed; these days, students tend to be more interested in finding jobs than staging protests. Formerly radical trade unions have grown more moderate. A remarkably broad and vibrant network of civic organizations now helps ensure citizen participation in the government. The media have grown more assertive and a whole new crop of magazines and blogs has sprung up on the Internet (a powerful force in a country where 90 percent of homes have broadband access). And public attitudes show strong support for democracy. According to a recent survey by Asian Barometer, 82.7 percent of South Koreans disagreed with the statement "We should get rid of Parliament and elections and have a strong leader decide things," compared with 80 percent in Japan. Even more significantly, 88 percent of South Koreans disagreed with the statement "No opposition party should be allowed to compete for power," compared with 67 percent in Japan, and 73 percent in Taiwan and Thailand.

But the biggest changes are visible in the political sphere. Twenty years after the People Power movement forced the military to submit to popular elections, there are signs of progress everywhere. Consider Roh's opponents, who are enjoying his current troubles with glee. Not so long ago, South Korea's right wing was dominated by the military and its allies. Today, however, that role is being filled by the Grand National Party (GNP), the conservative opposition group that has proved its democratic bona fides by fairly contesting--and losing--the last two presidential votes. The military has been under full civilian control for some time and shows little interest in changing the status quo.

Meanwhile, the country's democracy is becoming truly liberal for the first time. Even after South Korea started holding elections in the late 1980s, it remained dominated by larger-than-life figures who built their power on their individual appeal. The country's first democratic leaders, known as the Three Kims--Presidents Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil--governed through force of personality and cozy ties with businessmen and regional elites. Political parties played little role; the Kims created and discarded such organizations at whim. …

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