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S. Korean Politicians Have 'Battle of Humility' - 2004-04-14


South Korean politicians are working hard to woo voters ahead of Thursday's legislative elections - and that includes making heartfelt apologies for actions that have upset many people. The head of a new party was among those joining this battle of humility.

Chung Dong-young, of South Korea's Uri party, formally announced Tuesday he was going on a hunger strike before Thursday's National Assembly Election. Until Monday, Mr. Chung was chairman of the Uri Party, the main backers of impeached President Roh Moo-Hyun. Mr. Chung resigned to apologize for a gaffe he made weeks earlier, when he suggested elderly voters should take election day off, in his words, "to rest."

Older voters mainly support the opposition Grand National Party, or GNP, while Uri derives much of its support from the younger generation.

Many Koreans were outraged at the remark, and the Uri Party has since slipped in the polls. Analysts and media organizations that once predicted a sweeping mandate for the party are now much more uncertain. On Tuesday, Mr. Chung announced Tuesday he would stop eating, as an even deeper sign of his regret over the remarks. Mr. Chung warned if the Uri Party is defeated, President Roh may be forced to leave office - and said that is why he is taking the drastic step of a hunger strike.

Mr. Chung's actions are the latest in a theatrical contest of dueling humility by many of the key political players in this vote.

The GNP and its allies in the Millennium Democratic Party, or MDP, voted to impeach President Roh last month because he violated an election law. He now awaits a court ruling on whether he can return to office.

Pro-impeachment politicians, however, quickly found, that voters were unhappy with the move, and their support began to plunge. That kicked off a round of humbling exhibitions.

When GNP Chairwoman Park Geun-Hye accepted her position several weeks ago, one of her first actions was to move party headquarters out of its spacious Seoul headquarters - and into tents in a parking lot.

The new office has no running water, heat, or air conditioning. It is meant to be a sign of penance for years of alleged GNP corruption. Ms. Park also made visits to a Christian cathedral and a Buddhist temple to pray for forgiveness for her party's sins.

Beckhee Cho, with the Uri Party, says heartfelt apologies resonate with Korean voters. "Modesty has always been part of Korean culture," she says. "The more humble [humility], and modesty that we show, the more comfortable we feel with that sentiment."

Showing regret was hazardous to at least one Korean politician's health. Choo Mi-ae, campaign chief for the Millennium Democratic Party, wanted to apologize for her party's role in impeaching President Roh last month. So, she began a grueling Buddhist ritual of lowering her body to the ground after every three steps. After doing that for three days, Ms. Choo was forced to spend time in a wheelchair. Other MDP supporters have shaved their heads in penance.

Many South Koreans think that displays of regret have gone over the top in this vote. Some voters say the theatrics could actually backfire if they are perceived as pre-election showmanship.

Minseon Lee is a Seoul resident who works for the American Chamber of Commerce. She says for Koreans, apologies are infrequent, but serious, affairs. "We're not good with apologies, but if you apologize, you have to be sincere. And because the mood is so bad right now, they're saying if we're going to apologize, we've got to say that we mean it," she says. "That's why they're going to extremes."

It is not clear whether good apologies make good campaign strategy. When Thursday's votes are counted, many politicians will know the answer to that question - and some others will know exactly what they have to regret.

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