SOUTH KOREA'S YOUTH GENERATION
ROCKS ASIA'S GEOPOLITICAL LANDSCAPE
By Tom Plate
April 16, 2004
Veteran Asia-hand Nicholas Platt
isn't quite ready to canonize Roh Moo-hyun as a great contemporary Asian
leader -- notwithstanding this 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 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 poppa
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, though, because of its
impressive economic growth even back then, 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 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 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 the Democratic People's
Republic of 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 (which this
column then urged) 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 Nick Platt reflects on what's happening
in South Korea and feels like a young buck again.