South Korea: Too Much Activism?

Song Young Gil and Won Hee Ryong epitomize South Korea's 386 generation—the dynamic group of activists who took it upon themselves to transform the country. They gained political power in their 30s, helped to usher in democracy in the '80s by ousting a military regime, and were born in the 60s. Like America's anti-Vietnam War generation, the 386ers demanded greater economic equality and more social justice.

Six years after being elected to the National Assembly, however, both Song and Won are frustrated. Not only because the idealistic goals of the 386ers have not been attained, but also because the movement itself has been humbled, having largely bungled its political opportunity. About 20 of President Roh Moo Hyun's top advisers are 386ers—and critics blame them for the divisive political climate in the country, and for a slowdown in economic growth. The Roh administration is deeply unpopular. "Our generation was good at fighting for democracy," says Song. "But we were poor at building something new." While Song belongs to the ruling Uri Party, a disillusioned Won has remained in the conservative Grand National Party.

As Korea's own "we generation," the 386ers were expected to make the country a better place to live. Their liberal dedication to the common good, demonstrated during their democratic struggles in the 1980s, were seen as rare assets in an age of selfish individualism. But the progressives haven't been able to translate lofty values into sound government policy. Inexperienced and often dogmatic, the 386ers have polarized Korea. Press Secretary Yang Jung Chul, for example, has waged a fierce battle with conservative publications critical of Roh. "The 386 generation took power too early," says Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University. "They were not prepared to run a country."

Many of Roh's aides worked closely with him on labor and civic movements before his election in 2002. After he became president, they initiated a series of radical reforms designed to rapidly bridge the economic gap between the haves and have-nots by regulating large conglomerates and heavily taxing the wealthy. What's more, their sympathetic views toward North Korea created serious friction with Washington and other allies. The result has been dire: slower economic growth, a widening income gap and rocky relations with international allies–all of which troubles the public. Roh's approval rating recently dipped to 15 percent. Over the pasttwo years, his Uri Party has lost 40 out of 40 by-elections.

The 386 generation's fall was not totally unexpected. Reading Marx and taking part in anti-government demonstrations is one thing, but running a country—or a ministry—requires analytical training and pragmatic thinking, which many of Roh's policy gurus seem to lack. After watching the collapse of the Soviet Union and North Korea's famine in the '90s, some 386 leaders embraced capitalism. But the hardcore members remain more ideological than practical. Politically, they still embrace confrontation rather than dialogue. "For the core 386 members, you are either enemy or friend," says Hahm. "There is no neutral ground." Lawmaker Song now ruefully describes the 386ers as "a very unfortunate generation."

It's not fair to say that they've failed completely. South Korea has become a much more dynamic and creative society than it was, say, 20 years ago. The country is a leader in information technology, and its popular culture dominates Asia. Still, Won and others fret about how fragmented the movement has become. "Although we started as one generation with one common experience, we have since diversified into many different groups," says Won. Song says more mature and practical 386 members will gradually replace the dogmatic members as the former become the absolute majority in politics. "Our fight is not over yet," he says. "As we succeeded in the '80s, we can succeed again." But with the conservative Grand National Party favored to win next year's presidential election, the question is: Will they get another chance?