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Blacklisted Korean politicians sit up and take note

Civic groups release lists of more than 200 'unfit' leaders, ahead of

Forget term limits or campaign finance reform. Ahead of the April 13 parliamentary elections, Koreans fed up with their politicians are "blacklisting" representatives whom they consider unfit for public office.

Their sins?

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More than 200 politicians have accepted bribes, fist-fought in the assembly building, or fanned divisive regional sentiment, among other things, according to watchdog coalitions of more than 450 civic groups.

"I'm just totally fed up with it!" steams Park Jae Hyun, a student at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Politicians are understandably miffed too, crying that such lists are "illegal" here. Korean election law prohibits most third parties from endorsing or criticizing candidates.

But the civic groups have struck a chord with the public and are being praised for confronting the failings of Korea's young democracy.

To understand how poorly Koreans regard their politicians, consider that 128 of the 299 standing lawmakers in the National Assembly made the first of two lists released of the "unfit." More lists are being prepared. In general, Korean politics are dominated by kingmakers who pick candidates and set policies in backroom dealings, critics say. But the closed process has come under increasing scrutiny. Corruption scandals are now common fare in the media, following the 1996 convictions of former presidents Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan on charges of treason, mutiny, and corruption.

When the first civic group announced its list on Jan. 10, politicians reacted furiously. Aides besieged the offices of The Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), a respected NGO. They carried stacks of documents while "shouting and begging" for their bosses to be taken off the list, says Marion Kim, a campaigner there.

The NGO campaigns "are politically motivated, and biased...." They "amount to character assassination," says Park Shin Il of the opposition Grand National Party. Like many in the opposition, Park suspects many NGOs are actually quasi-political organizations supporting the ruling party.

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Some political scientists say Korean society should be cautious about these civic groups, as they could become a potent political force. Recent polls show 80 percent of Koreans support the NGO watchdog work. A week after condemning the blacklists, lawmakers moved to discuss revisions to the election law that restricts participation and "campaigning" before the official period, and to allow the civic groups to voice complaints.

Only labor unions already had the privilege. The two umbrella labor organizations here said this week that they will compile their own lists after reviewing potential candidates for their positions toward labor.

The politicians have tried to respond to the public's concerns. A much-touted reform act passed Jan. 15, but lawmakers were sent back to the drawing board after accusations of collusion in guarding their privileges. The bill gerrymandered districts, didn't reduce the size of the National Assembly as planned, and actually increased government subsidies to political parties.

Despite the protests, not a single lawmaker has filed a libel suit against the civic groups. CCEJ, for one, is not worried. They made their list after researching media reports. They regret the black-and-white lists, but say Korea's political process is too closed to really make an objective evaluation.

"We want to expand voters' rights and authority, increase political participation and political awareness through this reform," says Kim Yong Jae at CCEJ. "We're trying to restore people's trust in the political process."

"People didn't realize that they were the true owners of power. This [campaign] will enlighten their self-recognition. They won't be indifferent or cynical anymore... It's a landmark for Korean political history," says Yang Sae Jin at The Citizens' Coalition for the 2000 General Election, an umbrella group of NGOs whose more than 450 member groups formed their new coalition to publish more lists of unfit candidates.

And the politicians?

In the long run, it's going to have a "big impact" and open opportunities for younger reform-minded politicians, says Byun Yong Shik, an editorial writer at the Chosun Ilbo, a major daily.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society