North Korea

Limits of amnesty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 March, 1998, 12:00am


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As populist measures go, pardoning a ninth of a country's population must be one of the more dramatic. The 5.5 million pardons handed down by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung for offences ranging from parking violations to breaches of the country's harsh security laws will certainly be appreciated at a time when the economic crisis gives his people precious little else to celebrate. Some analysts have suggested that the move was an attempt to draw a line between the oppressive and undemocratic regimes of the past and his own. It will certainly be remembered for striking a different note.

It would be churlish to object to an amnesty for those who benefited. Yet the move may be seen as one grandiloquent gesture too many. It did not tackle the real injustice at the root of the South Korean criminal system: the jailing of political dissenters and the harsh sentences handed down to supporters of the admittedly treacherous and threatening regime of Communist North Korea.

Mr Kim had no need to court popularity this early in his presidency. He may have experienced difficulty securing the support of the Parliamentary opposition, but he has so far shown a remarkably sure touch in winning the backing of the people despite unpopular austerity measures forced on him by the crisis. Nor did he need to distinguish himself yet again from his predecessor. He had already established himself as a conciliator, prepared to overcome the country's endemic regional rivalries, bitter class divisions and the split with North Korea. While the previous president, Kim Young-sam, had lost his popular appeal, turned vengeful in his final years in office and reintroduced the anti-North Korean security measures he had earlier repealed, he was democratically elected. His regime was no military dictatorship.

Yet the question begged by such a far-reaching, but ultimately timid, gesture as the amnesty is not why President Kim went so far at a time when his popularity remains so high, but why he has not used his honeymoon period for more far-reaching reforms.

Human rights campaigners say only 15 per cent of the country's recognised political prisoners were released in Friday's amnesty. Some of the world's longest-serving prisoners are still behind bars for crimes regarded as treason when they were convicted, but which now seem no more heinous than political dissent. President Kim has called for talks and renewed contacts with North Korea. Some of those behind bars did no more than put such ideas into practice.