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Commentary: Korea's Roh Has A Second Chance. Now He Has To Use It


It was an improbable come-from-behind victory. In South Korea's parliamentary elections on Apr. 15, the Uri Party, formed last November by supporters of embattled President Roh Moo Hyun, tripled its presence in the National Assembly, winning 152 seats in the 299-member body. For the first time since military dictatorship ended in 1987, Koreans voted to hand the President parliamentary control, giving the government a better chance to push through key initiatives.

That's a resounding mandate for Roh, particularly after his opponents in the National Assembly impeached him on a technicality in March. Voters reacted in anger to that brazenly political move. But now they will be expecting the President to use his mandate to pursue the social and economic reforms he promised when he took office last year. "Roh has got everything he wanted. Now he has to deliver," says Hahm Sung Deuk, political science professor at Korea University in Seoul.

Indeed, Roh needs to make the most of his big second chance. Most observers assume that South Korea's Constitutional Court will reinstate him as President. When that happens, probably by late May, it will be time for Roh finally to act presidential. For the first 14 months of his five-year term, the former human-rights lawyer behaved more like a dissident outsider, battling against the conservative opposition while appealing emotionally to his supporters among the working class and younger generation. Publicly expressing his "helplessness" as a leader, he blamed the National Assembly, then controlled by the opposition, for blocking his efforts. Now, Roh no longer can make excuses. Instead he must seek consensus among his supporters and the rest of society, and focus on improving economic efficiency. He also needs to mend ties with the U.S., whose role will be crucial to ending the nuclear crisis with North Korea and attracting investment.

Much is at stake. The next four years of Roh's presidency could determine whether Korea will be dwarfed as an industrial power by China, which is already snatching manufacturing jobs. If Roh and his team forge the right policies, Korea could capitalize smartly on the giant Chinese market. But Roh will have to resist the temptation to resort to short-term fixes at the expense of longer-term economic health. That's the mistake his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, made by recklessly promoting credit-card use to boost consumer spending. The bursting of that bubble has depressed domestic demand.

Avoiding errors is not enough. Roh must also persuade his supporters to swallow the bitter pill needed to push Korea to a new economic level. He'll have to be tough with both the unions and the big conglomerates that abuse their privileges, buck the farmers' lobby to forge free trade agreements with more countries, and open service sectors such as insurance. "The big question is whether Korea will become a business-friendly environment," says Sakong Il, a former Finance Minister who is now chairman of the Institute for Global Economics, a think tank.

How Roh reshuffles his Cabinet will provide a key signal. Prime Minister Goh Kun, now the acting President, is likely to step down once the Constitutional Court rules. "Who Roh includes in the new economic team will be a clear indication of the seriousness of his pledged reform programs," says Kim Sang Jo, economics professor at Hansung University. Roh will also face a political challenge after resuming his responsibilities. He'll have to decide whether to keep a promise made in February to deploy 3,000 more South Korean troops to Iraq. Many of Roh's supporters oppose such a move.

Will Roh have the courage to go ahead? "Roh must change his style and look beyond his political interests to avoid being a failure," says Kwon Young June, a leader of the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice, an activist group. The President has a new mandate, but governing a politically volatile South Korea still isn't going to be easy. By Moon Ihlwan


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