- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s decision to ask for a vote of confidence came as a refreshing shock to the Korean public, which had never seen any politician willing to assume responsibility for his own faults. The number of voters who are willing to give him a second chance, as reflected in public-opinion polls, has steadily risen since.

At first, opposition leaders welcomed Mr. Roh’s proposal, saying that the confidence bid should be tested through a national referendum. They thought he would lose.

Mr. Roh’s approval rating in recent months has hovered below 40 percent, the result of several underlying structural constraints of Korean politics. Whoever would have won the presidential election would have found it difficult to sustain a high rating. The election was the first contest between two major candidates after the presidential selection process was fully democratized in 1987. The race was fought between the two candidates distinct in their backgrounds and platforms. Both parties made all-out efforts to either maintain or wrest back power.

The election-campaign confrontation was so bitter that the winner, whoever he was, would have been hard-pressed to get a concession from the loser. After the election, the members of the opposition Grand National Party filed a lawsuit to obtain a recount, only to lose. They still harbor grudges. Such bad feelings are typically reflected in a column by Kim Dae-joong, a well-known conservative, in the daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo. Even if Mr. Roh wins a fresh mandate through the proposed referendum, he wrote, “no one will uphold the results.”

Another reason for Mr. Roh’s low rating is that his core supporters have voiced disapproval as his policies have changed for pragmatic reasons. These supporters, highly educated and younger, generally favor the “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea, arms-length diplomatic dealings with the United States and pacifist approaches to international problems. They were particularly miffed by the president’s decision to dispatch Korean troops to Iraq. They seem to feel betrayed by Mr. Roh, but not so much as to discredit him altogether to obtain an alternative.

Mr. Roh, who has suffered a bad press, lost the moderate voters who were expected to throw their weight behind the pragmatic shift in his policy. Because of the bad economic situation in particular, indiscriminate distortions and attacks on him by the conservative press seem to have won over some of the moderates.

Since the political system was substantially democratized in 1987, the workers who had long been alienated began to raise their voices demanding rights. As a result, the growth potential for the national economy has suffered steadily. This and other elements, combined with the government’s policy failures, brought on an economic crisis in 1997. The Kim Dae-jung administration was able to pay back bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund in full, but efforts to restructure the economy were not quite successful. Moreover, the Kim administration’s liberal consumer credit card loan policy proved problematic: It succeeded only to shore up the economy temporarily by way of increased household spending, but resulted in massive debts and delinquencies. The incumbent administration inherited these problems.

Regardless of the fundamental cause of the economic malaise, the press claimed that Mr. Roh’s labor-friendly policy is the main culprit for the economic problems. Many people seem to believe it. However, the Roh administration drafted a bill enhancing the relations between labor and management, matching global standards. The administration has worked to persuade labor and other entities to help in enacting the new law.

Mr. Roh’s greatest accomplishment is a thorough guarantee of neutrality for such powerful organizations as the prosecutor’s office, the national tax service and the Fair Trade Commission. The prosecution and the Fair Trade Commission have been trying to uncover fraudulent corporate accounting and other irregularities. Many businesspeople have shied away from investing and have accumulated cash, aggravating the weak economy and increasing the possibility of further fanning real estate speculation.

Reform entails pain. In the early stage, reform probably will not help revitalize business. It is essential for the president and his administration to persuade the public of the long-term benefits of reform for short-term pain. At a time when there is no impending financial crisis like the one in 1997, it is difficult to mobilize the support of the public.

However, the reform drive, which is designed to break the traditional collusion between the government and business, as well as to introduce global standards into the economy, constitutes an indispensable choice for the Roh administration as it strives to join the ranks of advanced nations. Mr. Roh’s approval rating may not revert to its previous high levels soon. However, if his policies win the support of the voters in the next general elections, he will be remembered as a very successful president.

Kisuk Cho is a professor of political science in the Graduate School of International Studies of Ewha Womans University in Seoul. She is a specialist in elections and public opinion, and is a popular commentator and columnist. She is an editor of the Korean Political Science Review and serves on the Advisory Board of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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