Events in 1988

Events in 1988

President-elect Roh Tae Woo outlined his 1988 political goals--both old and new--in a New Year's interview. Some of Roh's comments echoed the authoritarian language of President Chun's 1987 New Year's speech, which had typically called for "grand national harmony" in which transcendent political leadership would see the country through, if only the people would "rid themselves of all vestiges of the old habit of confrontation and strife." Roh made ample reference to traditional themes, speaking of "suprapartisan operation of national affairs," "rooting out corruption," and a mixture of persuasion and "stern measures," if necessary, to bring leftist elements back into the fold. Roh also seemed to promise genuine innovations: to eliminate authoritarian practices, to investigate and punish people guilty of past financial scandals, to protect the press from harassment by law enforcement authorities, to reorganize intelligence agencies, to demilitarize politics, and to resolve the 1980 Kwangju incident by restoring honor to the victims and providing remuneration to the bereaved.

Other leaders and other political forces also had their own agendas for the new year. Under the heading of "Liquidating the Legacy of the Fifth Republic," the opposition parties of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam sought to investigate corruption in the Fifth Republic, to reexamine the Kwangju incident, and demanded the release of all political detainees and the reform of numerous laws that had been used to control nonviolent political activity and free expression. Like Roh, Kim Dae Jung's ability to compromise was limited to a degree by his own desire not to lose influence with an offstage constituency, in this case the dissident community and other elements to his left. Kim Chong- p'il's presidential campaign had also made use of these themes in its attacks on the government party's candidate, Roh Tae Woo. Of even greater importance, however, was restoration of the reputations and professional careers of numerous individuals from the Park Chung Hee era who, like Kim himself, had been purged in 1980 during Chun Doo Hwan's takeover. These individuals included more than 8,800 civil servants and officers of state corporations as well as several dozen senior military officers (from the army chief of staff down), who had lost both ranks and pensions. Successful resolution of these issues greatly increased Kim's ability to work with the government party.

Other groups in society had their own expectations. Members of labor unions at many of South Korea's large corporations, fresh from a major campaign of strikes in late 1987, hoped for the right to elect their own leaders and organize outside the framework of the government-sponsored Federation of Korean Trade Unions. Some dissident organizations hoped that the forthcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics could be held jointly in P'yongyang and Seoul. Leftist students also sought opportunities to meet with North Korean students. Some activist students hoped to establish firmer contacts with farmers and the growing labor movement, while at the violence-prone fringe of the radical student movement others planned to continue to dramatize their grievances through arson attacks against United States and South Korean government facilities. Still other dissidents planned to continue demonstrating against the Roh government out of conviction that it was a simple continuation of the previous militarized regimes.

After his inauguration in February 1988, Roh took steps to honor some of his campaign promises, appointing a woman to his cabinet and approving the rehabilitation of thirty-one generals dismissed in Chun's coups of 1979 and 1980. Another commitment, to appoint members of the opposition parties to cabinet posts, was not met when the two major parties failed to propose names for consideration. Four of the new cabinet appointees, however, were from the Cholla provinces.

Negotiations among the major political parties promptly began over amending the National Assembly Election Law, one of the major political issues left unresolved in the 1987 Constitution. At stake were two variables: the size of the electoral districts and the degree of proportionality. Each party took a position that it believed would be to its advantage. Initially, the government party and Kim Chong-p'il's NDRP favored different mixtures of large and small districts. Kim Young Sam's party was divided between its rural members, who also favored multiple- member districts, and the leadership, which argued for single- member districts. Kim Dae Jung's party, which in the presidential election had swept all but two districts in Seoul, hoped to use its heavily concentrated constituency in the Cholla provinces to become the largest opposition party with a single-member district system.

The ruling party eventually shifted to a single-member district formula close to that proposed by the PPD, but finally withdrew from the negotiations, claiming that the other parties could not come to agreement in time. In a manner reminiscent of the tactics of the Park Chung Hee era, the ruling party took advantage of its legislative majority to unilaterally pass its own draft amendment in a one-minute session held at 2 a.m. on March 8, 1988. The newly amended law reinstated single-member electoral districts, last used in the general election of 1970. It also diluted the element of proportionality somewhat by reducing the number of at-large seats to 75, or about one-fourth of the total of 299, and by more evenly distributing them among the participating parties. The opposition parties strongly protested (Kim Dae Jung's party less vigorously than the others) and then started to prepare their campaigns.

According to most observers, the results of the general election of April 26, 1988, set the stage for a new political drama. For the first time in South Korean history, the government party lost its working majority in the legislature. The government party had hoped to emerge victorious, as the two largest opposition parties again split the antigovernment vote. With 34 percent of the popular vote, however, the DJP held only 125 seats (87 district seats and the remainder at-large), well under the 150 needed for a majority. Kim Chong-p'il's party, the NDRP, ended up with a total of thirty-five seats, enabling it to form its own bargaining group in the National Assembly. Kim Young Sam's RDP gained a small number of seats, but lost in overall ranking in the larger body. Kim Dae Jung's PPD took the senior opposition party position with more than 19 percent of the vote and 23 percent of the total number of seats.

There were several reasons for the upset. The government party might have made a stronger showing had not Roh, intent upon consolidating his control of a party that still contained many holdovers from the Chun period, replaced one-third of incumbent legislators with political newcomers. Because the new candidates were not able quickly to build up the personal networks necessary for success at the district level, the ruling party in effect gave up one of its strongest campaign assets on the eve of the election. Other factors included the ruling party's lack of a following among younger and better-educated voters and its failure to distance itself sufficiently from the Chun government (the former president's brother was arrested on corruption charges one month before the election). Increasing regionalism also played a role, especially in the Cholla provinces, where the government party candidates failed to win a single district seat.

The impact of the new balance of political forces in the National Assembly, characterized by the press as yoso yadae (small ruling power, large opposition power), quickly became evident. Even before the thirteenth National Assembly convened in late May 1988, the floor leaders of the government and opposition parties met to agree upon procedures and to discuss the release of political prisoners. These four-way talks became common during the next two years, especially for routine business matters. Four-way talks also were used to negotiate in advance such political issues as the distribution of committee chairmanships (nine for opposition parties, seven for the government party) and the National Assembly's investigation of dozens of cases of corruption or other irregularities committed under the preceding Fifth Republic.

The judiciary also moved toward greater political independence in 1988. In June one-third of the nation's judges demanded that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Kim Yong- ch'ol, resign as a measure to restore public trust in the politicized court system. Two weeks after the chief justice resigned in disgrace, the two major opposition parties abstained from the National Assembly vote to confirm Roh's first choice for the vacancy, thereby causing the nomination to fail. This action resulted in the nomination of Yi Il-kyu, a more independent- minded figure known for not bending to political pressure. A Supreme Court justice during the Chun presidency--until his appointment was not renewed in 1986--Yi had won wide public respect for overturning lower court rulings in political cases. Yi's appointment as chief justice led to National Assembly approval of thirteen new Supreme Court justices and a major reshuffle of the judiciary in July that affected some thirty-five senior District Court and High Court judges. At a meeting of chiefs of all court levels in December 1988 when the Supreme Court was drafting a revision to the Court Organization Law that would give the judiciary full control over its own budgets, Chief Justice Yi Il-kyu called on the judiciary to "take a hard look at ourselves for the situation in which the public felt distrust for the judiciary" and pledged that he would "never tolerate any outside influence in court proceedings."

Under Yi's leadership, the South Korean judiciary became more independent. This trend continued into 1989, as courts overturned the parliamentary election victories of two government party candidates on charges of illegal campaigning and sentenced numerous former officials and relatives of former President Chon Doo Hwan to prison terms on corruption and power-abuse charges. In another unprecedented action in late 1989, a judge acting on his own initiative granted bail to a student activist charged with violating the National Security Act.

The Seoul Olympics, scheduled to begin in September 1988, contributed to a tacit political truce where the more contentious and difficult political questions, such as the revisions of "bad laws" sought by the two larger opposition parties, were concerned. The primary focus of partisan politics during 1988 was the settling of old accounts concerning the Fifth Republic. These issues in turn were divided into two categories: questions related to Chun's seizure of power in late 1979 and early 1980, including the Kwangju incident, and questions concerning corruption and other irregularities during the period of Chun's rule through 1987. In July 1988, following the president's veto of two bills that would have expanded the legislature's inspection powers--for example, enabling the National Assembly to order judicial warrants forcing subpoenaed witnesses, such as former President Chun, to testify--the government party agreed with the three major opposition parties to hold hearings into numerous irregularities of the Fifth Republic. Other special committees established in July were charged with studying reunification policy, democratization issues, problems of regionalism in politics, the conduct of the Seoul Olympics, and irregularities in the recent presidential and general elections.

In twenty meetings held between late September and mid- December 1988, the committee investigating corruption under the Chun government interviewed dozens of witnesses, many of them high-level civilian and military officers. The televised hearings dazzled the public with revelations concerning the suppression of media independence in 1980, the extortion of political funds from large corporations, and improprieties connected with the Ilhae Institute, a charitable foundation established by Chun Doo Hwan.

The hearings had several effects. Pressures against the former president grew as the hearings continued; in late November 1988, Chun appeared on television to apologize to the nation, taking responsibility for what he termed the "tragic consequences" in Kwangju in 1980. He also stated that he would surrender US$24 million in cash and property and announced that he would seek seclusion in a Buddhist monastery in repentance. The hearings led to subsequent criminal prosecutions of numerous members of Chun's family, as well as former high officials, including the former director of the Agency for National Security Planning, Chang Se-tong. The hearings also gave many South Koreans their first opportunity to see their legislators in action and set a precedent for future broadcasts of National Assembly business.

The drama of the hearings drew attention away from the more prosaic business of the National Assembly, which during the year passed dozens of laws and decided on a 1989 budget. Despite often strong disagreements among parties, these results underscored the role of four-way talks in the process of political compromise, previously a rare commodity in South Korean politics. The resulting de facto coalition foreshadowed the merger of three of the four parties in early 1990.

People dissatisfied with Roh's first year as president overlooked significant political factors, including the restraining impact of world attention prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympics on Roh's conduct. Roh did make effective moves to consolidate his political position during the year, including a series of appointments and reshuffles within the Democratic Justice Party, the cabinet, and the senior ranks of the military. Changed political circumstances in 1989 made it possible for Roh to move more decisively to deal with opponents inside and outside the National Assembly.

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