MANILA — What did I miss most after I had left South Korea nearly a year ago, a South Korean journalist asked me during a recent visit to Seoul. “Actually, it is Korean politics,” I answered to his disbelief.

While South Koreans tend to have a very negative perception of politics and politicians in their country, I must confess that during the years I lived and worked in Seoul I developed a fascination for all things political in that part of the world.

I will never forget, how, in my very early days in Seoul, a young South Korean politician took me aside and said: “Here, you will never be bored. In Korean politics, there are always surprises.” I have learned over the years that this not only holds true for domestic politics in the South, but is even more the case for the relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang.

After many talks with South Korean friends and colleagues during my weeklong stay in the country, I came to the conclusion that South Korea today is in political transition. For months, President Kim Dae Jung has been a “lame duck.” As he is barred from running again for the presidency, his hold on power is slipping day by day as we move closer to the Dec. 19 elections.

Already, the president’s advisers are concerned with what Kim will do after he leaves the Blue House in February. The president himself has refrained from making any announcements in this regard. Asked in a recent meeting with foreign scholars what his plans are for the future, Kim would only reply that it is too early to say.

Meanwhile, democracy and peace advocates in South Korea and abroad have expressed their hope that the South Korean statesman will eventually play the role of an international mediator once he leaves office, as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has.

The fact that South Korean domestic politics are in transition becomes most obvious if one looks at political party developments. No doubt, Kim has turned his back on partisan politics for good. His departure from the helm of “his” Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) has been more than just a symbolic act. In words and in deeds the president has demonstrated that his role as a partisan leader is now history.

While his immediate predecessor, Kim Young Sam, and his longtime political rival (and temporary coalition partner) Kim Jong Pil continue to be involved in petty politicking ahead of the presidential elections, President Kim is following a hands-off strategy. He has disassociated himself from all political wrangling in the party he created and led.

Kim’s definite departure has had dramatic implications for the Millennium Democratic Party. His role has been so dominant over the years (if not decades), that an undisputed political heir is nowhere in sight. In effect, Kim’s exodus has created a political vacuum that remains to be filled.

This may explain, why Kim’s former party is moving closer toward disintegration, as several legislators are defecting ahead of the crucial December election in search of more promising political alliances.

“The rats are leaving the sinking boat,” comments a longtime foreign observer of South Korean politics, who over the years has become accustomed to this phenomenon of “migratory politics.”

Interestingly, the attempt by the MDP to manage the succession issue democratically by introducing primaries to select the presidential candidate turned out to be rather ineffective. One could even argue that the political infighting in that historic process of grassroots participation has aggravated tensions in the president’s political camp.

This episode teaches that it is one thing to introduce progressive political procedures (and primaries for the selection of candidates for political office clearly fall into this category), and quite another matter to change the mind-set of traditional politicians.

“They are opportunists who are only interested in their own advantage,” says my journalist friend, who makes no secret that he used to support Kim Dae Jung’s party, but now favors Chung Mong Joon.

For a while it seemed that Chung, a businessman turned politician, would carry the hopes of the many Koreans disenchanted with the existing political parties and their leaders. But recently perceptions have been changing: As time goes by, voters increasingly feel that Chung is no different than the rest of the politicians.

Chung’s shrinking popularity gives the MDP strategists hope that their candidate, Rho Moo Hyun, still has a chance. On the other hand, there should be no doubt that opposition candidate Lee Hoi Chang will be South Korea’s next president should his two main contenders fail to unite and agree on a single candidate.

For South Korea, a victory by opposition candidate Lee would signal another bright triumph, as the peaceful transition from one party to another is an important ingredient of true democracy. Whether a conservative success at the polls would be conducive for Korea’s ongoing political and economic reforms is an altogether different matter. This only the future will show.

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