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."