Political barometer

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 January, 2004, 12:00am

Ahead of South Korea's April 15 legislative elections, everything is getting political. The government is suddenly making announcements or initiating projects that seem politically motivated. Opposition parties cry foul, arguing that such moves are designed to woo voters.

But it seems that nothing can stop the Roh administration at the moment. The planned dedication of the Seoul-Busan high-speed railway on April 1 is a good example. Originally, the line linking Korea's two largest cities was going to be completed on May 1, after 12 years in the making. But for some reason, the government decided to bring it forward a month. The euphoria surrounding the new rail line will surely help the ruling in the elections, but hasty completion of major public works could have devastating results, as has been seen many times before.

Also, suddenly the government is talking about pardoning several officials under former president Kim Dae-jung, charged with bribing North Korea to stage an inter-Korea summit in 2000 between President Kim and his northern counterpart Kim Jong Il. They were tried and convicted just last year after President Roh Moo Hyun succeeded Kim. But it seems the government now wants to appease voters in the southwest region of Cholla, Kim's birthplace and where his policy of engaging the North is seen as sacrosanct. If the officials are pardoned, it will be seen as a gift to local sentiment in favour of a native son.

Another example is the recent dismissal of former foreign minister Yoon Young Gwan. The former scholar became Roh's first foreign minister but has recently been criticised by Roh's young anti-American supporters for being too close to the United States. The foreign ministry came under criticism both for its handling of the North Korean nuclear issue as well as the decision to send Korean troops to Iraq. Days after Yoon was sacked, several foreign ministry officials were reprimanded for criticising the Administration's policy of steering an 'independent' course in foreign policy. Both moves were aimed at pleasing Roh's supporters, who demand more independence from US influence.

Perhaps it's all been a coincidence. But sceptics are asking why the government cannot wait until after the elections to make such sensitive political decisions - especially given that it holds only about 15 per cent of National Assembly seats.