[INSIGHT]The Logic Behind the Reform Programs

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[INSIGHT]The Logic Behind the Reform Programs

Why is the Kim Dae-jung administration bent on carrying out its reform programs? In particular, why does it obsess on press reform? It is a question anybody can ask, the answer to which will differ by individual, group or political faction. I will attempt to an-swer on the basis that what follows is solely my personal opinion.

First, we need to confirm few facts. The current administration is a minority party. It draws its support from people with a center-leftist leaning. Several conservative newspapers, mostly leading dailies, did not contribute much to the administration's taking the Blue House. And as the administration enters the second half of its five-year tenure, its popularity has been dropping alarmingly. Hardly anybody can dispute these facts.

It is inevitable that a minority party, which came to power facing insurmountable difficulties, will lead a reform drive, in the process of which there will arise a need for the administration and the press to see eye to eye.

The strong reform push against the so-called "Big Three" major dailies poses a great risk for the administration. It also conflicts with President Kim Dae-jung's record and image as an avatar of democracy, human rights and freedom of the press. Also to the administration's disadvantage is the fact that at best, it may retake the Blue House a few times, but the press will be around forever. Surely, common sense argues, if the administration is up against these disadvantages, it is looking only to scare the press a little.

From here on, we need to understand the thinking of administration insiders. In talks with some of them, there are some aspects of their psychology that I can relate to.

"As the administration in power," so the thinking goes, "we desire to coexist in harmony with society's mainstream, and we have made numerous efforts. But we have failed."

Who is this mainstream? It is a small group of people concentrated in Seoul - in particular, in southern Seoul. People in this group have graduated from top high schools and elite universities. The group has benefited from past administrations that hailed from the Kyongsang provinces. In-cluded in the group are the Big Three newspapers. The group may have refused to include new forces, or may have roughly shut them out.

Sadly, there is some justification in the administration's thinking. Just imagine the devastation and sadness the ruling party and the administration must feel when they realize they have failed to become society's mainstream. The next plausible step might well be an aggressive push by the minority party to become society's dominant force. It is understandable then that a minority party might attempt to establish its dominance by pushing strongly for reforms and its legitimacy through the results of the reforms.

But that still leaves the question: Does the administration have to go this far?

Politics is reality. The administration should be wise enough not to confront the press when there is no prospect for realistic gains. To understand the intentions of the ruling party we should consider the strategic structure of next year's presidential election and the need to combat "lame duck syndrome" as the current term winds down. Let's confirm the major premise again.

The ruling party perceives that it represents a minority and can never be integrated into the mainstream. The major newspapers, which represent conservatives, were its enemy and may become greater enemies in the next presidential election. Already the front runners of the ruling party are demanding internal party reforms and opposing their own party president. Fighting external enemies is needed to strengthen party solidarity. During the initial phase of the media tax probe there were voices counseling that the press owners should not be arrested, but currently no one in the ruling party harbors doubts on the press reforms. Calls for innovation in the ruling party disappeared long ago.

President Kim's electoral support is approximately 30 percent. In the last presidential election, he claimed 40.3 percent support by forming a coalition with the United Liberal Democrats and benefiting from the opposition's political immaturity. His poll support now hovers at 20 percent, but it is common knowledge that the president's support base remains about 30 percent. If the ruling party accepts the assertions of the moderates that reforms are useless at the end of the presidential term, then it stands to lose even the 30 percent base, which might result in the dissolution of the party.

The ruling party leaders are well aware of this, which is why they cannot suspend the "re-forms." They understand that they may come into power again by consolidating their popular support fighting with an external enemy and mustering another 10 percent share from among those ad-vocating their reforms. By continuing the reforms they can at least maintain 30 percent of the popular support.

I expect that the press reforms will not weaken, since the strategies and calculations mentioned above have fared well.


The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kwon Young-binn

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