Korea's Young Lions

They helped catapult Roh into power--and they're shaking up their country

Late January in Seoul. The city is in a deep freeze, and a cold wind whips through the narrow streets near the old royal compound of Biwon. But duck into the headquarters of People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and you'll find the temperature rising. Dozens of young volunteers sit at computers and work the phones, ferreting out corporate misdeeds, evidence of abuses by U.S. soldiers, and corruption among politicians. Fabled American activist Ralph Nader would feel right at home here.

But even after four decades on the U.S. scene, Nader and his followers have never scored the kind of coup these young Koreans pulled off in December. This group and a handful of others like it were critical in helping elect the new President, human rights lawyer Roh Moo Hyun, in one of Asia's biggest electoral upsets ever. By rallying massive, last-minute support from voters under 40, these activists snatched victory from conservative Lee Hoi Chang and set the stage for a dramatic generational shift in Korean politics and society--a shift that could well accelerate after Roh takes office on Feb. 25. "This election is the repudiation of the old order, the old political system, the old leadership," says Kim Ki Shik, 36, the leader of People's Solidarity.

Kim and his associates are at the core of what the Korean press has dubbed the "386" generation. Sound like a computer chip? It's actually clever shorthand for what is the essence of this group. The 3 stands for their age--these people are still in their late 30s (or, at most, early 40s)--absurdly young in a Confucian society to be reaching for power and influence. The 8 is for the 1980s, the tumultuous period when they attended university and the country shifted from dictatorship to democracy. And the 6 is for the 1960s, when they were born--the era when their parents were toiling ceaselessly to industrialize their war-shattered nation. "The 386 generation is the core force for change," says Roh.

These 386ers are the ones who faced down Korea's military rulers, did hard time in prison for student and labor activism, and fought deep-seated corruption in the country's executive suites and government offices. They're at the vanguard of the country's surprising surge of anti-Americanism, and they insist on a new tone of tolerance in the debate on North Korea. And they have created the most energetic corporate governance movement in Asia.

This cohort is ready to shake things up even further now that their man is in power. Although Roh himself is 56 and his Prime Minister is 65, 386ers will make up the backbone of the new administration. A dozen have posts on Roh's transition team and are likely to land important ministry jobs. Examples: Park Joo Hyun, a 39-year-old lawyer, is one of five senior secretaries to the President-elect. Song Kyoung Hee, a 42-year-old administrator at state-run KBS TV network, was named as Roh's presidential spokeswoman. And 38-year-old Lee Kwang Jae is expected to be appointed secretary for information and policy monitoring.

A tough, resourceful bunch--but a group that has known only the thrill of opposition and none of the burdens of power. It's unclear yet whether these comparative youngsters can handle the situation they find themselves in. Rooting out corruption? Staggeringly difficult in Korea, where the connections between the big conglomerates, or chaebol, and the political class run deep. Even the followers of reformist President Kim Dae Jung succumbed to the temptations of graft. And what about the biggest problem of all, ending the threat from North Korea? No one--in Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, or Washington--has figured that out. The 386ers want dialogue with Pyongyang. They may get strife instead.

The new leaders are, however, more than willing to tackle these problems. Highly educated, computer-savvy, and far more entrepreneurial than their elders, they've been instrumental in building one of the world's most successful economies over the past decade. The first to earn the sobriquet 386, in fact, were the entrepreneurs who launched a wave of high-tech startups in the late 1990s, helping make Korea one of the world's most wired countries.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the resourcefulness of this generation than the way its members helped Roh pull off his victory. When word spread that Lee Hoi Chang was pulling ahead, activists--mostly from a group called Rohsamo, or the "Love Roh Club"--organized an enormous, Internet-driven, get-out-the-vote drive on Election Day. The result was astounding. "Without this massive wave of young people going on the Net, there is no way Roh Moo Hyun could have become President," says David Richardson, country manager for Taylor Nelson Sofres Korea, a leading political pollster.

The panache and media skills of the 386ers even succeeded in turning Roh--a dedicated but buttoned-down fellow who lacks the polish of his younger followers--into a hot political commodity. While Roh's campaign rocked to the pulsating beat of 31-year-old Yoon Do Hyun, whose World Cup theme song epitomized the self-confidence of the younger generation, the rallies of 67-year-old Lee Hoi Chang featured sleepy fox-trots and folk tunes. "The existing political order simply could not keep up with the new, dynamic Korea," says 38-year-old An Hee Jeong, a key campaign strategist for Roh and now vice-president of the think tank of Roh's Millennium Democratic Party. Koreans under 40 voted for Roh by a margin of almost 2 to 1, while those over 50 preferred Lee by 61% to 37%.

The stark generational split in Roh's support will likely change the way Korea's government views the outside world. The 386ers see themselves as an integral part of a rising Asia, and many feel Korea should seek closer cooperation with neighboring China and Japan and loosen ties with the West. In fact, South Korea's new leaders have already made it clear that they are not willing to follow the dictates of the U.S. in their attitudes and policies toward their belligerent, impoverished neighbor to the north. Many see the conspicuous U.S. military presence as a symbol of the past--a past when their country was poor, dependent, a pawn in great power politics. "North Korea would not have resorted to its dangerous games had the U.S. refrained from pushing it into a corner," says Kim Sok Yeon, a 38-year-old attorney working for People's Solidarity.

The 386ers in Roh's administration want to throw out that baggage and start anew. The seminal event of their parents' lives was the Korean War. For the 386ers, the defining moment was the Kwangju Massacre in May, 1980, when South Korean troops stormed the southwestern city of Kwangju to put down a 10-day revolt by everyone from housewives to students. At least 193 people died. Since the U.S. had operational control over South Korean forces at the time, dissidents charged that Washington could have stopped army strongman Chun Doo Hwan from sending in the troops. The U.S. disputes this, but the legal niceties are of little interest to activists, who made sure that incoming university students learned about the atrocities.

Many, sheltered by a censored press and government-issue textbooks, had never heard about the incident--and were radicalized when they did. "The Kwangju Massacre brought the 386 generation together," says Chun Ho Sun, head of Roh's Internet strategy during the campaign and now a member of the presidential transition team. The movement started by Kwangju culminated in nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1987, ending military rule. The next year, Roh entered national politics for the first time in 1988, winning a National Assembly seat with the help of young activists.

The gap between the Kwangju generation and its elders is dramatically evident in their divergent attitudes toward the North. Nearly 60% of Koreans under 40 think the Korean War was touched off by East-West politics and was essentially a proxy conflict between the superpowers, according to a Gallup survey in late December. Some 43% of Koreans over 50, by contrast, say it was a wanton invasion by North Korea. "The communists killed our brothers and parents," says Han Seung Hee, 66, a retired phone engineer. He was so angry over recent anti-American protests that he brought his 9-year-old granddaughter to the Korean War Memorial in Seoul to teach her how more than 33,000 U.S. soldiers died saving South Korea.

North Korea has none of this dread significance for the 386ers. Sure, when they were children, their classes were interrupted by sirens announcing air raid drills, and they were hustled into protected basements. But as the South has boomed, North Korea has collapsed into a rogue state where hundreds of thousands starve and about the only things the country can profitably produce are illicit drugs, missiles, and bombs.

Those bombs, young Koreans believe, are unlikely to rain down on Seoul. Only 20% of those under 40 think the North would target the South, according to Gallup, while nearly 40% of Koreans over 50 say an attack is possible. Even as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il maneuvers to build more nukes, most 386ers support engagement with the North, the "sunshine policy" of outgoing President Kim Dae Jung. "The crisis should be resolved through dialogue and persuasion rather than isolation and pressure," says Lee Eun Hi, a 38-year-old former student leader who served three months in jail in 1988 for arranging a photo exhibit about North Korean women. She now serves as an aide to the President-elect's wife.

Subduing the North is just not at the top of the 386ers' agenda. "We want to end the old political order characterized by corruption, close political-business ties, and authoritarianism," says Suh Gab Won, the 40-year-old chief of protocol for Roh's transition team. Thus the young leaders are determined foes of the chaebol, whose tentacles once wrapped around virtually every aspect of Korean economic and business life, and which pumped out the cash that oiled the political machinery for decades. Kim Dae Jung's regime attacked many of the biggest chaebol, but abuses continue. To further rein them in, Roh is proposing higher taxes on inheritances to contain the power of the business dynasties and tighter restrictions on cross-shareholding among chaebol affiliates.

To get an idea of the kind of politician the 386ers are relying on to effect these changes, stop by the National Assembly office of 36-year-old Im Jong Seok. Previous generations of pols spent years slavishly currying favor with party bosses before they got their seats. Im followed a far more tortuous path to parliament, where he has served as a deputy in Roh's Millennium Democratic Party for two years. As a student activist in the late 1980s, he spent 3 1/2 years in jail on national security charges for masterminding a student's clandestine trip to North Korea. Later he helped peasants harvest crops and headed a nonprofit group that trained young people to use computers.

Im certainly isn't cut from the same cloth as his elders in the Assembly. His office wall sports a crayon drawing his now 7-year-old daughter sketched three years ago. And the soft-spoken Im invited visitors for an interview at his National Assembly office during the lunch hour, a time traditional politicians reserve for cutting deals over boozy meals in smoke-filled private dining rooms. Unlike many of his elders, Im wants to stamp out political corruption and give parliament a more active policy-making role. "Whether in politics or the economy, transparency and fair play will be the name of the game," says Im.

Just as Im and other young Koreans are trying to achieve a revolution in politics, other 386ers are trying to transform the business climate. There has been some progress. The Asian crisis reordered the priorities of Korea's banks, freeing up billions of dollars in capital that in years' past might have been funneled to the chaebol. But the banks were only one strand in the web of power the chaebol spun. Other practices, such as interlocking shareholdings and insider deals that transfer profits to family-controlled companies and losses to publicly listed ones, continue to shore up the conglomerates' power.

Activists such as Kim Joo Young are hot on their trail. The son of a former Supreme Court justice and a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Kim spent five years at Korea's top law firm, Kim & Chang. The 37-year-old helped draft pioneering legislation that would allow shareholder class actions, something Roh pledges to push through the National Assembly. Kim has already filed scores of suits on behalf of investors and recently won $1.8 million in damages against Samsung Investment Trust Management Co. and other companies that manipulated shares of Inzi Display Co., a maker of components for flat-panel screens. Now, Kim heads the Center for Good Corporate Governance, which aims to boost minority shareholder rights. "All the problems lie in the power of the controlling shareholders," says Kim. His group has a contract to provide consulting services for a $300 million investment fund, backed by the World Bank's International Finance Corp. and Deutsche Bank, which will invest in Korean companies that meet its tough governance standards.

As they move into power, the tech smarts of this crowd will remain crucial in furthering its goals and keeping tabs on its opponents. The older generation typically gets its news from a troika of staid newspapers that has long ruled the media scene. Some 80% of 386ers, by contrast, own mobile phones that can access the Web, and nearly all have high-speed Net links at home, letting them turn to Web upstarts such as OhmyNews.com and MoneyToday for their political and economic news.

Digitally adept as they are, the new leaders will face an uphill battle to do away with political corruption, even inside Roh's party. For all of Kim Dae Jung's credentials as a pro-democracy campaigner, he ran his political party like a medieval fiefdom. Kim and his top aides often chose the party's legislative candidates, just like the military dictators before them. Before the 2000 elections, politicians in both parties often paid to be candidates.

Roh has to dismantle this system. More important, he has to harness the power of his supporters to win another key goal--a majority in the National Assembly, which eluded the Millennium Democrats in the last elections, three years ago. A clear victory for Roh and his followers in next year's contest would signal that the 386ers have staying power. Roh himself says that unless he secures a parliamentary majority, he could end up being reduced to a "half-President."

Whatever happens, time is on the younger generation's side: The old order has been warned. "This generation doesn't like authority," says student radical-turned-lawmaker Im Jeong Seok. Increasingly, however, this generation is the authority. Korea may never be the same.

By Moon Ihlwan and Mark L. Clifford in Seoul

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