[VIEWPOINT]Korean reform: Japan’s lessonThe Grand National Party is in turmoil over the largest political funding scandal in Korean history. The key figures of the party, including a former chairman, a secretary general and a treasurer, are either under arrest or being investigated on charges of accepting illegal money from large businesses.
The scandal has deepened the internal strife between younger Grand National members who have called for reform and senior members who are struggling to retain their position. Moreover, the party has invited public outrage by passing a motion to free a former head of the party who was in custody facing allegations that he accepted illegal campaign funds from a conglomerate.
Critics of the majority party say its leadership showed little initiative in passing such national issues as the troop deployment to Iraq and free trade agreement with Chile in the Assembly.
Making things even worse, Choe Byung-yul, the party chairman, speaking at a meeting of senior journalists Tuesday, placed the blame for the scandal on his predecessor Lee Hoi-chang. His accusation angered those closely associated with Mr. Lee as well as younger legislators. Mr. Choe’s remark has poured fuel on an already incendiary situation.
The roots of the Grand National Party traces back to the Democratic Republican Party that for 18 years supported the rule of President Park Chung Hee. Mr. Park's party was succeeded by the Democratic Justice Party of President Chun Doo Hwan, and then by the Democratic Liberal Party of President Roh Tae-woo. Former President Kim Young-sam renamed the party the New Korea Party.
Although the name changed with shifts in leadership, it stayed as the majority ruling party of South Korea for 35 years. And it has retained its position as the largest party in the Assembly for the last six years, despite two consecutive defeats in the presidential elections.
Now, the Grand National Party stands a chance of losing its position because of damage from the political funds scandal and deepening internal strife. According to recent opinion polls, the popularity of the Grand Nationals lagged behind that of Our Open Party, which attracted a 40-percent appro-val rating in comparison with the Grand National Party's 30 percent.
The Grand National Party nowadays resembles that of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan 11 years ago. The Liberal Democrats, who led Japan for 38 years after the Japanese defeat in World War II, started to decline after corruption scandals erupted and it failed to carry out political reform.
In 1992, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa pledged to fully commit himself to a reform program. He introduced a set of concrete proposals on the new electoral district system, political funds, an ethics code for politicians and other reforms. But the effort was late and reform-minded people wanted a complete change of the corruption-ridden structure of Japanese politics -- "boss politics."
There were other controversial issues that had deepened the split of the Liberal Democratic Party, such as the Japanese military's participation in the UN peacekeeping operations and the opening of the Japanese rice market. Small groups started to split from the party in 1992 and they formed the Japan New Party led by Morihiro Hosokawa, the Renewal Party led by Tsutomu Hata and the New Party Sakigake led by Takemura. Ultimately, seven non-LDP parties formed a coalition government headed by Morihiro Hosokawa in 1993, ending 38 years of LDP rule.
Politics in South Korea parallel what happened to the LDP in many ways, especially in the system of boss-centered party operations and opaque management of political funds. It is clear that the political parties in Korea and Japan can no longer rely on veiled political funds supplied by their bosses. It is no exaggeration that the political history of both Japan and Korea is ridden with scandals involving influential politicians as is showcased by the Lockheed scandal of Prime Minister Katuei Tanaka.
Korea should recall that the Japanese economy had started to fall into a 10-year period of stagnation, when Japanese politics, especially the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, failed at reform efforts.
* The writer is the opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo