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  Global Views
David Steinburg argues
"A Social Revolution Shakes South Korea"
By David I. Steinberg
Contributing Writer
South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun

WASHINGTON — South Korea's first "cultural revolution" took place in the 1960s under President Park Chung Hee. Now a series of major changes by President Roh Moo Hyun suggest that a second administrative effort to remake South Korean society is under way.

Distressed by pervasive poverty and rural stagnation, Park — who took power in a military coup in 1961 — largely succeeded in breaking down the influence of the entrenched social elite by expanding education, encouraging state-directed export businesses, broadening the military mobility channel and recruiting a new, younger rural leadership.

Under Roh, a set of titanic shifts has been proposed that would alter the dynamic of the society that has essentially remained intact since the Park period. The highly skilled and foreign-educated Korean intellectual and administrative elite, with whom the United States has interacted so successfully over a generation, has been in part shunted aside in favor of a younger elite, largely educated within South Korea, many of whom were dissidents under the dictatorships.

The members of the new elite are less conversant with foreign affairs, more skeptical of U.S. motives and the American presence on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in the region, and have a strong desire to improve relations with the North Korean regime.

Some among them have advocated dismantling, or relocating to the provinces, Seoul National University, which has been South Korea's leading intellectual establishment since independence. Although such a move is unlikely to succeed, that it has been even suggested is breathtaking.

South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung is making a toast with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il during his visit to Pyeongyang for a historic summit meeting in 2000.

If the locus of intellectual activity is under scrutiny, so is the basis of much wealth in South Korean society. Income distribution in general has worsened in recent years, but the most egregious inequalities concern the wealth locked up in real estate. Roh has advocated moving the administrative capital from Seoul, where it has been located since the late 14th century, to the provinces, on the basis of the perceived need for balanced regional growth. This would diminish the assets of the establishment and create new gains in the provinces. The Constitutional Court has overturned this move, but it was, and still is, supported by the governing party.

The government has advocated the abolishment of the National Security Law, which has been in operation in some form since independence. Although the law was originally intended to fight espionage, it was used against dissidents. The law has been denounced by liberals in South Korea and in the United States as violating human rights, and its abolition has been demanded by North Korea.

Under the National Security Law, unauthorized contacts with North Korea were often severely punished as "anti-state activities." Some want the law to be retained in revised form because they believe its anti-Communist stance helps to define South Korean identity. Conservatives worry that its abolition would lead to North Korean intellectual infiltration and thus threaten the South.

On South Korea's National Day — the Aug. 15 anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonialism — Roh called for an inquiry to identify the families that collaborated with the Japanese. The opposition has countered by calling for a similar exposure of those who collaborated with the Communists or leftists.

The Roh government has advocated a continuation of the accommodation with North Korea that began under the "sunshine policy" of Roh's predeccessor, President Kim Dae Jung. This approach, supported by the governing party and many younger, nationalistic Koreans, is at odds with the Bush administration's stance toward the North, thus increasing the growing anti-American sentiment that has been so evident in South Korea in recent years.

US soldiers in a military drill in Yeoncheon area of South Korea's Gyeonggi Province Oct. 26, 2004. There are about 37,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea. Courtesy Reuters

The split in policy toward the North has exacerbated problems between Seoul and Washington. As one South Korean intellectual observed, "Americans are our friends, but North Koreans are our brothers." This sentiment is widespread in the South.

In addition to policy differences over the North Korean regime, there are three crises on the peninsula. The first is the North Korean nuclear issue, which the first Bush administration refused to acknowledge as a crisis. The second is between South Korea and the United States, where in spite of innumerable official pronouncements on both sides to the contrary, strong tensions exist.

The third crisis is the divide within South Korea between a liberal administration supported by the young and an older population worried about the malaise that it perceives in South Korean politics, the second cultural revolution and deteriorating relations with the United States. These crises interact with each other and cannot be segregated. Amid growing concern, there is now even evidence of some capital flight from South Korea.

These are fundamental challenges to the 50-year security alliance between Seoul and Washington; benign neglect of any of them will lead to failure. Northeast Asia's security depends on how South Korea and the second Bush administration deal with them.

David I. Steinberg is currently director of Asian Studies of Georgetown Univ.'s School of Foreign Service. He served as Asia Foundation's Korea representative, and president of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs. The Asian expert also worked in Asia as an official of US or UN. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Univ., he went through China's Lingnan Univ., and Univ. of London's School of Oriental & African Studies. He has authored a dozen books on Korea and other Asian countries.






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