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Monday, April 19, 2004

South Korea's youth now in driver's seat

NEW YORK -- Veteran Asia-hand Nicholas Platt isn't quite ready to canonize Roh Moo Hyun as a great contemporary Asian leader -- notwithstanding last week's stunning endorsement of the populist president of South Korea in elections that catapulted the progressive, pro-Roh party to the top of the heap in the National Assembly.

The former American diplomat suspects Roh's full measure has yet to be taken. For now, in fact, Platt (a former ambassador to Pakistan and the Philippines as well as a career foreign service officer and a prominent Washington national security official) favors only a handful of contemporary Asian leaders, including (though not exclusively) India's Atal Behari Vajpayee, Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra and Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, "though they all have their particular faults," he says firmly.

Listening to the precise Platt talk about the Asian political continent with such sweep and verve (notwithstanding his nearly seven decades) is like luxuriating in an intense conversation with a great orchestral conductor about everything from Beethoven to Schoenberg. For even though this lanky gentleman is soon to step down gracefully as president of the Asia Society after 12 years of notable accomplishment, he has lost nary an intellectual step or an ounce of enthusiasm for that part of the world he knows and loves: Asia.

And so, if he remains to be persuaded about Roh's hopes for historical immortality (whose first 14 months in office have been notoriously bumpy), he is utterly sold on the merits of South Korea's basic political direction. "It's becoming a tremendous, vital, working democracy," he says, as if a proud papa celebrating the birth of a child.

Platt's enthusiasm for South Korea is understandable. As recently as 1987, the lower half of the Korean Peninsula was a miserable military dictatorship, although, because of its impressive economic growth even back then, it was nowhere near as miserable as the North. Platt was, in fact, a deputy assistant secretary of defense at the time when South Korea (as Taiwan then, too) had a vicious secret police that would arrest people at the drop of a rumor, a supine judiciary that dispensed everything but justice and a captive news media whose word, in print and broadcast, couldn't be trusted.

That has changed dramatically; and Koreans (here in the United States as well as in South Korea and the rest of the world) ought to step back from their usual quarrelsome feistiness, take a deep breath and reflect on their achievement. For the results of this legislative poll, though not technically a direct referendum on Roh, provide Asia's fourth-largest economy and loyal (so far) U.S. ally with something of great value: a basic sense of political direction.

For it is impossible to interpret these election results, which handed the triumphant pro-Roh Uri Party a hard-to-achieve absolute majority in South Korea's Parliament, as anything other than a rebuff of those forces there that want to turn the clock back on economic reform, on peaceful negotiations with North Korea and perhaps even on continued excellent trade and diplomatic relations with giant (if still nominally communist) China.

For it is also now difficult to believe that the extremely ill-advised National Assembly impeachment vote against Roh can have the ultimate effect that his enemies intended without triggering a popular revolt.

Surely South Korea's courts will somehow manage to drive a stake into the heart of this vampire effort to suck the blood out of this fast-forwarding democracy.

It is also possible to imagine that this historic vote result means potential trouble for the Bush administration's glum, grudging policy toward North Korea. The Uri Party (along with Roh) favors an aggressive diplomatic rather than military approach to reconciliation with the North, however difficult and treacherous that totalitarian regime remains. For the North is changing economically and looking for a way out of the decline into which its retrograde policies have put it; and with both the pragmatic Hu Jintao government of China as well as the brilliant Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in support, the Roh government's approach -- a "Sunshine Policy Plus" -- is reborn. This means Washington either changes its tune or faces the possibility of diplomatic isolation in East Asia.

That development would not greatly sadden the many young South Korean voters who rabidly supported Roh from the beginning, were primarily responsible for his election last year and now have helped beat back his sworn and unsubtle enemies. They are generally not pro-American, or at least not pro-Bush.

Washington, listen up! South Korea's young generation is incontrovertibly in the driver's seat. This revolution, though notably peaceful, could prove a watershed in East Asia's modern political history. No wonder Platt reflects on what's happening in South Korea and feels like a young buck again.

UCLA Professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is founder of the UCLA Media Center and the Asia Pacific Media Network.

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