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Student Protests Shake South Korea Government

Despite reform efforts, scandals weakened President Roh's credibility

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A WEEK of student protests across South Korea, including three self-immolations, has highlighted the emerging status of President Roh Tae Woo as a lame-duck leader. The string of protests, which are expected to continue into mid-May, were triggered last week after riot policemen beat a university freshman to death.

The incident fueled fears that President Roh, who is constitutionally barred from running again in an election next year, might be resorting to harsh measures as his political power weakens toward the end of his term.

Mr. Roh's associates warn that his ability to rule will increasingly experience what is called noo soo, or a "leakage" of power, as people and politicians anticipate a takeover of government by Roh's successor.

In South Korea, where democratic institutions are new and still mistrusted, an old-style perception persists that a leader with a predestined end is already spent, and sometimes dangerous.

Roh has also suffered from a perceived inability to check the clout of big business, resulting in what is known as "the politics of shocks." Roh was elected in 1987 after protests toppled the dictatorship of his military colleague, Chun Doo Hwan.

In recent months, for instance, South Korea has been rocked by a high-level bribery scandal, a massive leak of a toxic industrial chemical, and skyrocketing prices of urban land caused by speculators, among other problems. Such events helped to fuel the protests, even at a time when the public has grown weary of student demonstrations.

"We have no apparatus to contain the influence of big business," says Nam Jae Hee, a National Assembly member and a leader of the president's Democratic Liberal Party (DLP).

Roh will need to take stern steps in coming months to stem any weakness arising from his lame-duck status, Mr. Nam says.


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