South Korean NGOs defy corrupt politicians, gain greater democracy, 2000

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Timing
Time Period:  
12 January
2000
to
13 April
2000
Location and Goals
Country: 
South Korea
Location Description: 
Protests took place across the country
Goals: 
The goal was to blacklist corrupted politicians and make them lose in the general election
 

South Korea had its 16th general election on 13 April 2000, and its outlook was not bright for many people. Many predicted that the new election would not diverge much from the scenes of the last election in 1996, which was largely problematic. Despite the democratic transformation since 1987, some incumbents and authority figures solidified their power through undemocratic means. Corruption was not hard to find in the election. Some played into and boosted the existing regionalist sentiments that had been largely shaped by the military dictatorship of the past. It was also common that candidates who had ties with the past military dictatorship regimes and/or gained power through persecution of the democratic movement maintained their power.

The nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of South Korea had not been passive in their roles to delegitimize and outcry such undemocratic figures before, but they did not pose a strong threat to such politicians. In 1996, NGOs initiated the Fair Election Campaign, in which they ferreted out corrupt politicians and informed the Attorney General of such politicians and urged the Attorney General to act. But it was common that even the politicians who were involved in corrupt acts would get away with it after they won election.

In 1999, several NGOs established the Center for Congress Watch (CCW) to monitor the congressional activities. After auditing the regular parliament, the members of CCW would publish a regular report, in which they announced the worst congressmen. The furious congressmen engaged in an effort to prohibit the NGOs from attending the public audience room—the activists trying to attend to sessions in the room were dragged out.

Many NGOs rejected under the political scene realized that it was almost futile to watch the congress after such corrupt and authoritative congressmen had been elected. They agreed to engage in a largely concerted effort that directly challenged the political candidates in the upcoming general election of 2000. Most NGO activists endorsed the idea of a blacklisting campaign, in which they would target specific candidates who were explicitly corrupt, and inform the public not to vote for them.

On 12 January 2000 the General Election Solidarity (GES), consisting of 412 NGOs, was formed under the leadership of four main groups—Peop1e’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), Korean Federation of Environmental Movement (KFEM), Korea Women Movement United (KWMU), and Green Korea United (GKU).

The GES formed under the agreement that the binding NGOs would work together to come up with a blacklist of corrupted politicians and hold a series of public campaigns encompassing all regions of Korea until the general election.

The first challenge that GES faced was a Voting Law, Act 87, which forbade “third actor intervention” in election campaigns. NGOs were not allowed to “intervene” in the campaign because—the logic went—they would be detrimental to the impartiality of the election.

Under the challenge, GES responded that Act 87 was unconstitutional because it regarded civil engagement as unlawful. GES also formed two back-up leadership groups in case the current one was arrested. After such thorough planning, GES introduced the public to the principle of civil disobedience and openly declared that it would act under that principle.

Most congressmen denounced GES as outlaws, disturbing the rule of law and exploiting populism to their favor. But Korean President Kim Dae Jung endorsed the effort of GES and arranged institutional support for it. As a consequence neither was the law reformed before the general election nor were GES activists arrested for transgressing Act 87.

GES divided the Blacklisting Campaign into two separate phases—one targeting the political parties’ process of nomination (Nakchon Campaign), and the other targeted at dissuading the public voters from voting the blacklisted candidates (Nakson Campaign). In the Nakchon Campaign, GES blacklisted 102 candidates.

In the blacklisting process, there were seven applied criteria. Among them, the three most important criteria were: corruption, violation of election law, and anti-human rights activities and anti-constitutional activities. The blacklists were released in two press conferences—on 24 January and 2 February.

Once the list was released, GES met more vehement opposition from powerful public figures. Jong Pil Kim, one of the most renowned politicians from the list claimed that GES had ties with the President, and was playing to his favor. Moon Yul Lee, the famous right-wing author claimed that the blacklisting campaign was the contemporary version of the Red Guards of Mao Zedong. Interest groups formed by politicians also rushed to the GES headquarters in Seoul and rallied for their politicians’ innocence.

But the suspicions among the public stirred by these opponents of the campaign grew after the televised debate (with an audience of 12%) on January 27, between the members of GES and congressmen. The result of the heated debate was a clear victory by GES. The congressmen could not provide clear evidence regarding the charges they had posed against GES as communists or President Dae Jung Kim’s political ally.

On 30 January GES started its first massive rallies in six major cities within South Korea. In Seoul alone, more than three thousand activists, celebrities, and citizens gathered around the Seoul Subway Station to support the campaign. They held large “yellow cards”, symbols of warning against the corrupt politicians, and marched throughout the center of Seoul.

On 19 February, when the second massive rally was held, it became a nationwide phenomenon that with similar rallies in up to 41 cities around the country. The second rally was very festive. It was tinged with upbeat cultural performances that were arranged by artists who “donated” such efforts. The most famous song in the rally was celebrity singer Jung Hyun Lee’s “Change”, the lyrics of which were slightly changed in order to fit the theme of the campaign, declaring millennial change in the political scene.

On the party nominations day, which took place on 20 February, 48 out of 102 blacklisted candidates failed to be nominated.

Unsatisfied, GES plunged into a withdrawal campaign. It filed appeals against the blacklisted politicians, but largely failed. Not a single politician was ruled by court to withdraw his or her nomination.

Despite the court decisions that discouraged the campaign, GES tried to keep up with the continual progress by holding a third rally on 1 March—the national holiday that celebrates the large national protest against the Japanese imperialist domination in 1919. GES announced a “Voters’ Independence Declaration”, claiming that they would succeed in the spirit of March 1 to save the country and reform the structure of politics.

Thirty-three representatives—symbolic of the 33 national leaders who declared independence in 1919—encompassing all sections of the society gathered on Tapgol Park, Seoul, and asked for the citizens’ support of the campaign. Five days of camping ensued right after the third rally. GES set up a big tent named “Political Reform Plaza” in front of Myongdong Cathedral (famous from the democratic movement in the 1980s) to draw more supporters and donations.

GES also embarked on a nationwide bus tour campaign on 20 March to encourage regions other than Seoul. They realized that too much attention was paid to the main leaders’ activism in Seoul. They also decided to initiate the “2,270,000 Voters’ Promise Movement” by collecting signatures representing their “promises” to vote with the responsibility of conscientious citizens. The number they came up—2,270,000 voters—was a symbolic figure, which was sum of the 10,000 voters for each of the 227 precincts. The tour lasted a week, and GES eventually gained 336,226 “promises”.

On 3 April, GES began the official Nakson Campaign—the campaign for defeating the nominated candidates in the general election. GES announced 22 additional blacklisted candidates. The sum of the finally blacklisted candidates numbered 86 in total. Moreover, among the 86 total candidates, 22 political “big heads” were selected as GES’s main targets.

One of the general strategies for GES was referred to as a “one-on-one” or “man-to-man” strategy. It assigned each of the 22 main targets to each of the most prominent leaders of GES. Each leader and his/her group would reach the district of the assigned candidates, and rally around the area. The campaigners held red cards this time, symbolically calling an end to the candidacy.

Various opponents confronted the campaign in different and sometimes violent ways. Some threw eggs and flour; others took away the pickets and the red cards. One of the most dramatic moments in the confrontation took place in Bucheon. Jung Yul Moon, the mother of the candidate Sah Chul Lee, and a supporter of the candidate approached the group of activists. Holding the picket which said, “Dear President Dae Jung Kim and the members of the GES, I beg you to stop killing my son,” she sobbed in front of Won Soon Park, one of the prominent leaders of the campaign.

Won Soon Park, exhausted, collapsed on the roadside, and moaned, “What should I do?”

Another strategy that made the Nakson Campaign largely successful was the principle of nonviolence that was officially declared on 6 April. The campaign had been largely nonviolent, but this was the first time that the leaders had openly declared this stance. The members of GES were told to strictly abide by the ten principles of nonviolence that GES provided. The principles included: lowering the tone of voice amidst the uproar, wearing a “mask of peace” when faced with violence, and breathing three times before speaking in front of the opponent. Such principles solidified the members of GES and aroused public sentiments when they were shown in TV, even beaten up by opponents.

The blacklisting campaign was largely successful online as well. GES established “ngokorea.org” on 12 January. It was an unprecedented move for the NGOs to draw the participation of the online community. The online community, facing the possibilities of their direct engagement for the first time, actively wrote their opinions about the campaign and encouraged GES. Some even used their expertise in computer science to track down the IP addresses of a vehement user who would write offensive statements on the board, and identified it to be a person from congress.

The festivities of the campaign culminated on 8 April, when GES held the “Go, Play, Vote, Change Festival”. It was, according to the leaders of GES, “the Korean version of Woodstock.” Artists and musicians rushed to the stage set up in the Daehak-ro, and performed to encourage GES and voters. More than 50,000 citizens gathered and waved their hands that held red cards.

The campaign ended on the day of the general election—13 April. By that time, NGOs that had joined GES numbered more than 800. For the dramatic closing of the campaign, campaigners gathered in Myong Dong.

Won Soon Park, one of the leaders of GES, held the closing speech, entitled “I Have a Dream”, in which he declared that he dreamed of a society that had clear and transparent politics.

On 14 April, the results of the election revealed that the campaign was largely successful, although only 56.4% turned out to vote (a new low in general elections).

59 out of 86 blacklisted candidates lost. 15 out of the 22 main targets also lost.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The Blacklisting Campaign was influenced by the failed Fair Election Campaign in 1996. (1)

NGOs influenced by the Blacklisting Campaign in 2000 initiated the Manifesto Campaign for the 2004 general election. (2)

Sources: 
Moon, Kyung Ran. (2000) "우리에게는 꿈이 있습니다: 총선연대, 유권자 혁명의 100일 드라마 [We Have a Dream: the General Election Solidarity, and Hundred Days of Voters' Revolution]." Nanam Publication

"A Study on the Blacklisting Campaign against Corrupt Politicians in South Korea--Focused on the 'Naksun Movement(落選運動)' in April 2000." Cho, Hee-Yeon. http://dnsm.skhu.ac.kr/board/zboard.php?id=eng_paper&no=12

*Pictures can be found on

(http://news.naver.com/main/read.nhn?mode=LSD&mid=sec&sid1=001&oid=036&aid=0000004915)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Soul Han, 07/10/2012