Korea's 'Generation 386'

It may seem like just an election. But for Kim Ki Shik, it is a crusade. On behalf of some 400 civic, environmental and feminist groups, Kim and fellow activists have drawn up a blacklist of 86 candidates they claim shouldn't be elected in this week's parliamentary balloting because of corruption, incompetence or past connections to dictatorship. Waving red cards that symbolized expulsion, as they do in football, Kim, 34, and hundreds of other young activists last week sang "Change," a pop hit, at a rally in downtown Seoul. They marched to Myongdong Cathedral, the hotbed of pro-democracy student demonstrations in the 1980s. "In the 1980s we fought to take power away from military rulers in a revolutionary way," Kim says. "We are now trying to change society in a more mature and incremental way."

You could call it the election of Generation 386. Like Kim, they are in their 30s, were radicals in the '80s and were born in the '60s. The 386ers say they are like their namesake, the microprocessor: powerful, dynamic and fast. Indeed, they are already changing South Korea. Nearly 150 of the candidates running for the National Assembly are 386ers, and generational change is on the agenda. The injection of young blood was conceived by President Kim Dae Jung's ruling Millennium Democratic Party, which hoped fresh faces would help beat the opposition Grand National Party, the current majority holder. The strategy worked initially, as young candidates rode high on the popular civic movement to drive out old politicians. But the opposition party came up with its own 386 candidates, too. The election's outcome is unclear, and much is at stake. If the ruling party loses, President Kim may have trouble pushing his economic reforms and efforts to improve relations with Pyongyang.

About two dozen candidates for the National Assembly were fervent student activists. Lim Jong Seok, 33, a former student firebrand, was a political outsider until this year. Running in Seoul's Songdong district against a four-term incumbent lawmaker, Lim is campaigning on a theme many in Korea's older generation can't understand: engagement with North Korea. While leading the radical students in the late '80s, he fought for quick unification with the communist North and spent four years in jail for violating the national-security law. After years working with civic groups, he joined the ruling party this year in support of Kim's sunshine policy of engagement with Pyongyang. "Without more contacts and cooperation with North Korea, we cannot have peace, let alone unification," says Lim. His opponent criticizes him—like many other 386 candidates—for being too radical. But young voters who are sick and tired of old politicians will opt for candidates like Lim. "In the U.S., Europe and even in Taiwan, political leadership is getting younger," Lim says. "Korea also needs young political leaders to keep up with them."

Beyond politics, the 386 generation is already reshaping Korea. The thirtysomethings—9 million people (3 million of whom went to college)—are challenging the Confucian, seniority-bound political, business, social and cultural establishments. During the late '80s, alienated student protesters pushed the government to introduce democratic reforms. Now the 386ers are moving inside the system—into business, politics and the arts—bringing with them freewheeling ideas. "This is like the baby boomers in the U.S. or the '68 generation in Europe, who changed the looks of their societies completely," says Lee Hae Young, an international-relations professor who recently published "The Age of Revolution," a study of the 386 generation. "Having fought successfully against their common enemy in the '80s, they know how to succeed in their current revolt against the establishment."

The 386ers are helping break down the crony-driven conglomerates, called chaebol. Some picked up democratic business ideas in the West, where they went to study after the government eased controls on foreign travel in the 1980s. Others learned to hate the hierarchical business system by joining the chaebol. Hardcore radicals, meanwhile, built a powerful labor movement. Activist Kim, who served two jail terms for protests during university days, helped unionize workers by laboring at small-machinery manufacturers. As democracy spread, he helped form a nongovernmental organization to fight for economic reforms. Kim's People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy is now feared by the chaebol: the group has pressured them to reform their autocratic management and enhance transparency and accountability.

Trained in the radical '80s to be fearless, computer-savvy thirtysomethings are leading Korea's new, high-tech economy, too. As the chaebol have started to collapse, the younger generation has moved in. Nearly half of Korea's 5,000-plus high-tech startups are run by 386ers. Kim Hyong Soon, 39, the founder and chief executive of Locus, a fast-rising provider of innovative Internet services, is now the second richest man in Korea. During college Kim defied his family's wishes and flew to the United States to study. Today he owns 40 percent of his $2 billion company. But unlike many chaebol tycoons, he doesn't want to be called an owner. "I am just a major shareholder who can be replaced by a better manager," Kim says. He abhors the chaebol's autocratic management style. Once a month Kim takes his staff to a pub for wild drinking and talking sessions, sometimes until early in the morning. One amazed Locus employee says Kim "serves the staff rather than rules them." It is a practice unheard of at old, traditional companies.

The 386ers, of course, grow older, too. Younger Koreans already think the thirtysomethings are becoming too complacent, looking like the older people they fought against. A typical 386 couple can make $30,000 a year and lives at a 100-square-meter apartment in Seoul's suburbs. Their main concern is to move to a bigger flat and own a bigger car. "Unless we continue to upgrade ourselves, we will become just like any other generation," says activist Kim. He says the real challenge will be to inspire twentysomething voters. In principle, they agree that Korea needs to open up. But they are so alienated by the older generation that many won't even bother to vote.

Kim Ki Shik doesn't know how many of the 86 blacklisted candidates will be elected. Narrow-minded politicians have tried to focus the election back on Korea's deep-rooted regionalism. Older voters, threatened by the changes they see around them, can't understand the 386ers' message of change. But regardless of the outcome of the elections, Kim will continue his fight. "The more I see limits in my crusade, the more I am motivated to do this," Kim says. "Our experience in the '80s tells us nothing is impossible." The fight isn't over, but change is in the air.