FLAT EARTH

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The Independent Online
A tough bunch ...

The fate of South Korea's former military leaders, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, sentenced to death and 22 years respectively, must have concentrated minds elsewhere in east Asia. Shows what happens when you give them democracy, I can imagine the generals thinking in Rangoon or Jakarta. But they might just as well have concluded that it demonstrates how dangerous it can be to delay the inevitable for too long.

Chun and Roh took more than a decade to shed their uniforms and adopt civilian dress, gradually easing the country into free elections. They even co-opted Kim Young Sam, one of the country's main dissidents, to become the first civilian president. Yet the widespread public satisfaction at the verdicts proves memories are not so short.

Despite the assertion by some regional leaders that "Asian values" do not include democracy, it seems that in every society there is a point at which rising prosperity produces dissatisfaction with undemocratic rule. Often the result has been a massacre, such as the one in Kwangju in 1980, for which Chun has now faced a reckoning. Although he is unlikely to hang, his sentence must have made uneasy reading for those responsible for similar events elsewhere - Tiananmen Square in 1989, say, or Bangkok in 1992. As for North Korea, goodness knows what they make of it there. Not a word has been heard from Pyongyang so far.

Fierce bunch, the Koreans, as the above may have convinced you. Proud, too, as the Japanese, with whom they have been exchanging incivilities for the best part of two millennia, are well aware.

Only the other day the South Koreans began knocking down an unhappy relic of the Japanese occupation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Seoul's blue-domed capitol building was erected in 1926 as the seat of the colonial government. Never mind that it had since proved handy to house the national museum, it stood in the grounds of Kyongbok Palace, from where the Yi dynasty ruled until the Japanese invaded. "Now the black shadow which has overcast the Kyongbok Palace ... will finally disappear and be buried in history," said the museum's director.

Come with me now across the ocean to Seattle, where the Microsoft Corporation's plans for world domination apparently take little heed of such sensitivities. Twice in the past couple of weeks, Microsoft has had to apologise to the South Koreans. First its Encarta 96 World Atlas CD-ROM allocated some islets, over which the two countries have lately been threatening each other, to Japan. Microsoft promised to show them as "disputed" in the next edition.

Then its Encarta 96 Encyclopedia said Kaya, an ancient Korean kingdom which existed between the 3rd and 6th centuries, was dominated by the Yamato clan of Japan, prompting a complaint from the South Korean Foreign Ministry. This theory, propounded by Japanese historians, is a distortion aimed at justifying Japan's 20th-century seizure of their homeland, say the Koreans. "We regret if these errors have insulted the Korean people," said Microsoft.

All this is probably just the start. The football authorities balked at choosing between Japan and South Korea for the 2002 World Cup, and made them share it instead. I shudder to think of all the politically incorrect publicity that will have to be pulped between now and then.

PC, up to a point

If you want political correctness, I offer you Carol Moseley-Braun. Meteoric rise from minor county official in Illinois to first black - sorry, African-American - woman in the Senate in 1992. Great celebration in Democratic Party ranks. Symbol of women's progress, black people's progress, land of opportunity.

Mosely-Braun takes as her lover Kgosie Matthews, a man of Zulu ancestry (does that make him African-African?), whom she once called her "knight in shining armour". They co-own a penthouse in Chicago.

All very aspirational, so far. But then earlier this month the senator flies to Nigeria, without her party's blessing and in the face of vocal opposition to the military regime by America's mainstream black leadership. She meets General Sani Abacha, who must have been delighted with this breach in his diplomatic quarantine.

It also emerges that Matthews used to be a paid lobbyist of the Nigerian government, and went with Mosely-Braun on the trip. Political correctness? Political liability, more like.

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