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In South Korea, a 'Do-Nothing' Legislature Prolongs Crisis

Economic recovery may require new laws - but the Assembly is gridlocked with internal political squabbles.

Just up the street from a park where tens of thousands of workers demonstrated Sunday lies the wide lawn and stately dome of South Korea's National Assembly. Not a few people suggest it would be a good idea to hold some protests there.

The Assembly's airy main hall and its plush swivel chairs have been empty for months as lawmakers squabble over procedural matters. Meanwhile, more than 250 bills, including about 30 key to restructuring the economy, are languishing.

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President Kim Dae Jung himself has long maintained that a lack of mature democratic institutions here has contributed to South Korea's economic crisis, as well as those in the rest of Asia. Powerful centralized governments in the region manipulated banks and businesses, keeping economies closed, corrupt, and inefficient.

But today, lack of political reform in Korea's National Assembly is exacerbating the crisis here, producing gridlock in the name of efficiency. Since President Kim's election in December, his National Congress for New Politics (NCNP), a minority in the Assembly, has been holding up action in the Assembly while recruiting lawmakers from the former ruling Grand National Party (GNP) to form a parliamentary majority. The NCNP needs a majority to pick one of its own as house Speaker - something it says is essential to pushing its reform agenda.

Just one lawmaker short of a majority, the NCNP has refused to compromise with the GNP long after many other Assembly positions officially fell vacant May 29. The inactivity has lasted even longer and is "nothing but a bid to take over the Speaker's seat," concedes Park Eun Ha, an NCNP official.

Few hold politicians responsible for Korea's financial crisis. The blame for declining national competitiveness that triggered the crisis usually goes to bureaucrats, bankers, and businesspeople.

But national recovery may depend on action from lawmakers. Opening capital markets, changing bankruptcy procedures, and designing a social-welfare system from scratch entails nitty-gritty legislative work. While there have been a few emergency meetings, no work has been done on these bills for six weeks.

The GNP has little reason to oppose the restructuring bills, say observers, although there may be debate over costly unemployment legislation. The impasse could end after by-elections July 21 if the NCNP finally gains the majority it covets. Then its politicians, who never vote against party lines, would pass the laws.

But compromise between ruling and opposition parties is laborious: The two are like "water and oil," says one aide to a ruling party assemblyman.

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Divided more by support from mutually antagonistic eastern and western regions of the country, they have virtually no ideological differences and defect to each other's parties.

The Assembly traditionally serves as a check against the executive branch, and many bills are modified through the legislative process. But developing a true democratic culture will take time. Party bosses still make key decisions, and members follow.

A culture of debate is only starting. Some younger lawmakers have tried challenging the party line (to the consternation of senior members) but it "won't be easy," says Moon Jong In, a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul.

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