It was a declaration of war on politics as usual. In Seoul on Jan. 24, almost 500 civic groups ranging from environmentalists to shareholder activists pledged to oust South Korea's most corrupt politicians from the National Assembly by driving them to defeat in upcoming elections in April. The activists have posted the names of 67 "unfit" politicians on a widely read Internet site that is updated daily. In the coming months they plan to spread their message to every constituency and college campus around the country. The fierce protests--which are recruiting people in their 20s and 30s who account for more than half of Korean voters--are aimed at ensuring that dishonest politicians don't get reelected.
Call it the nation's first cyberspace revolt against corruption. With Internet use growing explosively in Korea, to 11 million, or about 24% of the population, the activists' online push has potentially greater effect than street demonstrations of old.
The activists, who include even a group of songwriters, are technically breaking six-year-old laws banning election activity by civic groups. But their zeal to unseat the unsavory has the support of four out of five Koreans polled. That means Korea's political parties can't afford to ignore them, and their campaign will play a large role in determining who will be on the ballot in April. "Korea's No. 1 vice is corruption," says Park Won Soon, the leader of the movement called Citizens Solidarity for General Elections. "Corrupt politicians are unable to present solutions, so they themselves are the target of reform."
The Internet campaign does an end run around party bosses, who have traditionally chosen who will run for specific Assembly seats, often with little regard for ethics or popular opinion. But with the level of public awareness and concern growing, these elders are under pressure to drop questionable politicians.
No political party is spared. Among the targets so far are coalition partner and former Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil, opposition elders, and the National Assembly speaker. The activists accuse them of either taking bribes, violating human rights, or incompetence. While two lawmakers have asked prosecutors to press a libel case and others deny any corruption, many have kept silent. The pressure has also forced the parties to back a bill lifting a ban on election-related activities by civic groups.
Decades-old habits won't die quickly. Even in the new age of democracy in Korea, what has mattered for politicians is not their honesty but their district. In previous elections, associates of disgraced former strongmen Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo still won parliamentary seats in their home region of North Kyongsang, because voters resented prosecution of their hometown heroes. Politicians targeted now will play to local interests as well.
Yet urban voters, who hold the key to electoral success, are paying more attention to candidates' records. Seoul residents are tracking the activists' site, which gets 50,000 hits a day. Clearly, these voters are fed up. Before Kim took over the presidency in 1998, his party had supported tough legislation echoing activists' demands to combat corruption. Yet two years later, the bill still has not passed. With lawmakers in both camps more interested in furthering their own interests, the chaebol remain unaccountable to shareholders.
STRONGER HAND. Last year, affiliates of the top five chaebol undertook $11 billion in irregular deals that shifted money from profitable companies to weaker ones, according to government statistics. That's more than double the number of such transactions uncovered in 1998. On top of that, parliamentary leaders agreed in January to change election laws to make it harder to challenge illegal campaigning. That triggered an outcry and strengthened the activists' hand. The changes were rescinded.
With such breaches of the public trust proliferating, no wonder voters want a shakeup of the leadership. As the reach of the Internet extends further, expect calls for reform to go with it.