The strong showing by multibillionaire industrialist Chung Ju Yung's party in the Mar. 25 general election represents the strongest challenge yet to Korea's ruling elites. Chung's Unification National Party won 31 of the 299 parliamentary seats, depriving President Roh Tae Woo's Democratic Liberal Party of a clear majority. Prominent dissident Kim Dae Jung also scored gains.
Roh, a former general, has allowed the country to take on more of the trappings of democracy without completely wiping out military influence. But Chung, the 77-year-old founder of the powerful Hyundai group, scored big with his Ronald Reagan-style criticism of governmental interference in the economy. Now, liberalization is up in the air, and Korean politics could turn nastier--just as the country is trying to cope with increasing economic problems, including inflation at home and stiffening global competition from Japan.
Chung's successful move into politics may force the government to take a more laissez-faire approach to the activities of the chaebol, Korea's giant business groups. In recent years, the government has tried to direct their investment and influence their trading strategies. But some analysts worry that Roh's weakened position could lead to instability. Reflecting such fears, the stock market lost 2.8% on Mar. 25.
Interest now is shifting to the December presidential elections. In a step toward further liberalization, the ruling party appears likely to choose Kim Young Sam, a former dissident, as Roh's successor. The President is barred from serving another term. But Kim's enemies will probably blame the party's poor general-election performance on him. Industrialist Chung is mulling a run for the presidency. His candidacy would probably create more divisions at a time when Korea least needs it.