Korea bows to the will of Kim

The unions may have cut back their protests,

The annual New Year address by the president of South Korea has never been much of an occasion for soul-searching and humility, but even by the usual standards of self-congratulation, this month's speech by Kim Young Sam was a remarkable offering.

The President began by announcing that "a New Year of Hope has just dawned". Over the course of the next nine pages, he enumerated the achievements of his government and its goals for the next year, and urged his people to embrace "saving, frugality and industriousness". "Democratisation, justice and prosperity," said the President. "These are what we have attained." On the streets of Seoul, meanwhile, an almost medieval spectacle was being enacted.

Since Boxing Day, when a bitterly controversial labour law was secretly spirited through the National Assembly, the city has been disrupted by almost daily strikes and demonstrations, attended by workers, professionals, students, priests and Buddhist monks. Protesters wearing scarlet headbands swing iron poles at riot police, whose armour is modelled on that of Japanese samurai. In the Myongdong district, the city's trendiest shopping district, seven trade union leaders area shelter from arrest in the sanctuary of the Roman Catholic cathedral. Of the tumult threatening to paralyse his capital, President Kim's speech made no mention.

Popular protest is nothing new in South Korea, but even as the strikes and marches died down last week, it was clear that there has been nothing routine about the New Year labour unrest. For a start it has been vast, involving hundred of thousands of people in cities and manufacturing centres all over the country. Unlike the frequent riots of Seoul students, it has attracted international concern, from bodies such as the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Labour Organisation. But above all, it has focused attention on the figure of President Kim, one of the most complex, unpredictable and ambiguous leaders in east Asia.

"Ever since he was elected in 1993, anger has been building up against President Kim," says Bae Bum Sik, one of the union leaders holed up in the cathedral. "Now my feeling is that there is no hope for this president." In last week's rallies, there were almost as many banners and chants denouncing Mr Kim as there were condemning the new labour law. The streets outside the cathedral carry notice boards where citizens pin postcards addressed to the Blue House (the presidential residence), bitterly comparing Mr Kim to Korea's former military dictators. Korean journalists say privately that polls showing drastically low levels of support for Mr Kim have been suppressed on the orders of the president's staff.

The last time Seoul saw strikes on this scale, in 1987, the result was total capitulation by the government: the then president Chun Doo Hwan was forced to adopt a democratic constitution. As the 10th anniversary of its first free elections approaches, and Mr Kim enters the last year of his five-year term, there are plenty of people in Korea who are finding uncomfortable parallels between then and now.

That Kim Young Sam should be compared with corrupt military dictators is remarkable, given his history and the undeniable scale of his achievements. During the military period he was one of Korea's leading dissidents, a man who suffered vilification, harassment and im- prisonment under successive dictators. On his election in 1993, he became the first Korean leader in 30 years to come from an exclusively civilian background. In the first few months of his presidency, he won huge popularity with a series of long overdue but personally risky reforms.

These were recited in detail in this month's New Year address. President Kim purged the military and the bureaucracy of many of the stalwarts of the old regime - more than 3,000 officials were forced out of their jobs, including ministers and members of the President's own family. He passed a law banning bank accounts under false names, which had for decades underpinned Korea's culture of corruption. He instituted the first ever local elections (in which his own party performed badly), and limited the powers of the National Security Planning Agency, the successor to the notorious Korean CIA.

The boldness of these reforms, and the power of the vested interests that stood in their way, are not to be underestimated, but in 1995 Mr Kim eclipsed himself. Mounting evidence, ferreted out by determined opposition MPs, suggested that his predecessors as president, the former generals Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, had accumulated massive slush funds of bribes during their period in office.

Mr Kim initiated an investigation, first into the bribery allegations, and then into the long standing charges that Mr Chun and Mr Roh had personally ordered a massacre of students in the city of Kwangju in 1980. Along with the heads of several of Korea's biggest companies, implicated in the corruption scandal, they were convicted last year and are serving long jail sentences.

If this were the extent of his achievements, he would be approaching the end of his presidency as a hero. But the reforms and advances of the last four years are offset and, in the minds of many people, neutralised by inconsistency, touchiness and a confusing autocratic arrogance.

Even in his pursuit of the two former presidents, it was hard to escape a sense of personal vendetta in which the law became the instrument of a private agenda. The prosecution, theoretically independent, was transparently executing the will of the President; the law on the statute of limitations was amended in mid-investigation to allow the killings in Kwangju to be prosecuted.

Even Mr Kim's bitterest opponents could not bring themselves to complain about this, but other acts of legislative tinkering have provoked more unease. The fuss about the new labour law, which delays the promised legalisation of free trade unions for three years, has overshadowed another more sinister change, granting extended powers to the security agency. For all the constitutional guarantees about the freedom and independence of the press, many of Korea's media pursue a suspiciously compliant, pro-government line, and reporters complain of contentious stories, especially those about the President himself, being spiked or ignored.

The objections against the President crystallised in the recent legislation. After months of stonewalling by the opposition, who at one point physically blocked the parliamentary speaker in his office, it was finally passed on Boxing Day. Members of Mr Kim's ruling party were secretly bussed into the National Assembly before dawn. The entire procedure took seven minutes, and no members of the opposition were present.

The President appears to have won the latest battle: yesterday, the union leaders announced that the strikes were being wound down. But the political implications of Mr Kim's victory will last much longer, and the 10th anniversary of Korean democracy will be a moment of rather muted celebration. "We knew Kim Young Sam had a proud record fighting against dictatorship," says the opposition politician Yang Sung Chul. "But we made a mistake. We thought that because he was a fighter against dictatorship, he would also be a fighter for democracy. Unfortunately that is not the case."

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on