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Cablegate: Ngos Keep Presidential Candidates On Their Toes

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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHUL #1934/01 1780500
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 270500Z JUN 07
FM AMEMBASSY SEOUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5221
INFO RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 2715
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 2823
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC//OSD/ISA/EAP//
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RUEHIN/AIT TAIPEI 2013
RUALSFJ/COMUSJAPAN YOKOTA AB JA
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J2 SEOUL KOR
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J5 SEOUL KOR
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA SCJS SEOUL KOR
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS SEOUL 001934

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KS
SUBJECT: NGOS KEEP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES ON THEIR TOES

REF: SEOUL 1848

1. (U) SUMMARY: South Korean NGOs' influence on politics has
grown, but so has criticism of NGOs. Currently, NGOs are
diversifying their ideology and evolving in their political
roles. Left-wing NGOs tend to move toward active
participation in institutionalized politics, even forming
political parties and producing presidential candidates.
Right-wing and moderate NGOs are diverse in approach: most
try to stay neutral and stick to monitoring the candidates'
pledges; some are explicitly supportive of the conservative
Grand National Party (GNP). Despite these dynamics, many
pundits speculate that NGOs are not likely to influence this
year's presidential elections as much as they did in 2002.
NGOs will continue to be important watchdogs of the election,
however. END SUMMARY

--------------------------------------------- ----
NGOS IN POLITICS: GROWING INFLUENCE AND CRITICISM
--------------------------------------------- ----

2. (U) The rapid growth of nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) in South Korean society have made them a powerful
force. In particular, NGOs' increasingly active
participation in politics, starting in the 1990s, stands out.
Some decided to use their role to influence who would be
elected to public office. In April 2000, "Civil Action for
the 2000 General Elections," a coalition of 400-odd NGOs,
decided to "reject" politicians it viewed as unqualified
candidates for the National Assembly. That same year, the
Korea Federation of Environmental Movement (KFEM) supported
45 independent, progressive candidates as "Green Candidates"
fifteen of whom were elected. In the 2002 presidential
election, some NGOs considered to be leftist played a big
role in getting Roh Moo-hyun into the presidency. After
being elected, Roh explicitly thanked the NGOS for their
support, according to press reports. Roh reportedly said
"(he) would not have been elected if it were not for civic
groups." This year, Choi Yul, the seminal figure on the
Korean NGO scene who led the Korea Federation of
Environmental Movement (KFEM) and other NGO activists,
founded "Future Initiative for Integration & Prosperity"
(FIIP). The organization aims to produce its own candidate
for the upcoming presidential election and to participate in
creating a new progressive party. (See paragraph 7 for
more information.)

3. (U) Along with their rising influence, however, criticism
against NGOs also has been growing. Because NGOs have been
so widely involved in politics, some NGOs are seen as
political organizations with the goal of supporting the
current government instead of being watchdogs. Having seen
some NGO activists recruited to the government and go into
politics, the public now tends to view activists with
suspicion. According to a survey done by Korea Society
Opinion Institute in June 2006, 52.6 percent of the
respondents said they did not "trust" the NGOs while only
41.5 percent said they did. This is in a sharp contrast to
the survey in 2003-4 done by Samsung Economic Research
Institute, in which NGOs ranked first among trustworthy
organizations. By 2005 they ranked fifth.

--------------------------------------------- ---
NGO'S ACTIONS IN 2000 ELECTIONS: A STEP TOO FAR?
--------------------------------------------- ---

4. (U) Internal discord over their role in politics also
emerged among NGOs when the Rejection Campaign in the 2000
regional election was declared illegal by the Seoul
Regional Court, and officers of the coalition, including Choi
Yul, were fined USD 2 - 3,000. The controversy peaked when
the conservative organizations began to emerge as the "New
Rights" aiming to replace the so-called "Old right force"
after GNP's failure in the 2004 National Assembly election.
(Note: The GNP loss was largely due to backlash over its
failed efforts to get President Roh's impeached. END NOTE.)
In its initial stage, the New Rights' biggest organizations,
Liberty Union and New Rights Union (NRU), both called for
active participation in politics to resurrect Korea's
conservatism. Some organizations, including the New Rights,
argue that NGOs were political organizations and should
participate in politics to accommodate the public's demands
spectrum and that NGOs lost credibility because they were not
active enough. In contrast, others said NGOs should not be
politicized and remain neutral.

--------------------------------------------- -------
PROGRESSIVE NGOS MAKE NO BONES ABOUT THEIR POLITICAL
ACTIVITIES
--------------------------------------------- -------

5. (U) South Korean NGOs are diversifying into different
directions, left and right, and undergoing different
evolutionary processes, according to Professor Park Jai Chang
of Sookmyung Women's University. Like other NGOs in
the West, some NGOs are evolving from doing advocacy to
participating in the policy process, and to forming a party.
As a group, left-wing NGOs tend to move toward active
participation in institutionalized politics, to the extent of
forming parties. On the other hand, right-wing and moderate
NGOs are less inclined to go in that direction. Some lean
toward active participation but only as far as supporting a
specific party or candidate. Others call for neutrality in
politics and a return to addressing grassroots, non-political
issues.

6. (U) On the progressive side, FIIP stands out as the most
politically active civic group. At a press conference on
June 11, 2007, FIIP announced the launch of "Committee for
Creating a New Party" which would create a new progressive
party by late July of this year. The Committee is led by
Choi Yul and Kim Ho-jin, former Minister of Labor, and
consists of 69 members. The members are mostly NGO activists
and academics. Criticizing existing parties and politicians,
the Committee called for a "new progressive (political)
framework and politicians." The Committee said in its
statement that it will align with "all groups that agree
with (the Committee's) principles" and "actively pursue a
broad integration of progressive groups." Arguing for the
need to produce "a presidential candidate with the public's
support," the Committee said it will run primaries that
reflect the public's will.

7. (U) Both Uri Party and the newly announced Moderate
Unified Democrats (MUD) have been eyeing FIIP as a potential
partner to form a new political group toward a broad
integration, the "grand union" of progressive parties. Uri
Party members have reportedly contacted NGOs for possible
recruitment of high-profile individuals into their ranks to
gain the upper hand in the eventual consolidation of the
ruling camp. Some pundits speculate that the Committee will
support Sohn Hak-kyu,a former governor of Gyeonggi Province,
or Mun Kuk-hyun, CEO of Yuhan Kimberly, rumored to be
interested in the candidacy, as their candidate.

8. (U) Compared to progressive NGOs, conservative NGOs are
more divided on how involved they should be in politics. At
the extreme right, New Right Union's (NRU) co-chairman, Rev.
Kim Jin-hong, publicly declared its support for the GNP in
September 2006. Established in 2005, NRU was "inaugurated
with a slogan to end the leftist power," according to Jhe
Seong-ho, a law professor at Chung Ang University and NRU's
co-chairperson. Jhe argued that NRU is both a civil society
organization and political movement organization. More
moderate than NRU, Liberty Union is led by Shin Ji-ho and
tries to keep some distance from politics. According to Shin,
Liberty Union is broader and different from NRU in that its
goal is "advancing the nation through liberalist revolution";
it does not support the GNP unconditionally but is "willing
to support a candidate from even Uri Party if he or she
corresponds with the New Right Movement." Liberty Union
will conduct a policy review campaign based on the newly
published "New Right Korea Report," prepared for the 2007
presidential election.

9. (U) New Right NGOs are not above taking advisory roles for
politicians. Individuals from New Right organizations are
also being courted by presidential hopefuls, especially from
the GNP. On June 11, during the announcement of his
candidacy for GNP primaries, Lee Myung-bak, proposed forming
a "ROK Advancement Promotion Council" that includes the GNP,
New Rights, moderate, conservative, civic and political
groups. Meanwhile, Park Geun-hye, his close rival in the GNP
primaries, has been continuously speaking
at or attending events hosted by NRU.
10. (U) These civic groups on both sides all concede that
they are different from traditional NGOs. As Park Byung-ok,
secretary general of Citizens' Coalition for Economic
Justice (CCEJ) argued that NGOs in Korea are inherently
defined as politically neutral organizations. In fact,
civic groups prefer to call themselves "political
organizations," "political movement organizations" or "public
interest NGOs."

-----------------------------------------
SOME NGOS VOW TO STAY POLITICALLY NEUTRAL
-----------------------------------------

11. (U) Unlike civic organizations at each end of the
ideological spectrum, many moderate NGOs are trying to stay
neutral in or keep away from politics. On May 22, 2007,
Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), Young
Korean Academy, Christian Ethics Movement and Green Future
launched the "Committee on Preparation for NGO Social
Responsibility Movement." Recalling that NGOs are
experiencing a crisis of increasing criticism and decreasing
public support, they argued that NGOs have lost touch with
the average citizens and should address issues of everyday
life. The Committee aims to come up with NGO guidelines
after reviewing public demands. People's Solidarity for
Participatory Democracy (PSPD) will also focus on activities
to improve average citizens' quality of life, its secretary
general Kim Min-young said. Green Foundation's Rieh
Mi-kyoung, managing director, also told poloff that the
organization will remain neutral and emphasized that Choi
Yul, president of the Foundation, is putting on a different
hat as an individual in politics.

--------------------------------------------- ---
NGOS AGREE ON THE VALUE OF MONITORING CANDIDATES
--------------------------------------------- ---

12. (U) Most NGOs and experts, regardless of their political
involvement and ideological differences, agree that NGOs
should continue to review the candidates and their policies
in the presidential election. In a recently televised debate,
representatives from NGOs ranging from the conservative to
the progressive all agreed on that, though on little else.
Park Hyo-jong, who leads Citizens United for Better Society
(CUBS), a moderate-conservative NGO, argued that political
neutrality is important for NGOs and that CUBS will review
the candidates' morals and filter out policies aimed to serve
special interests. Park Byung-ok from CCEJ, agreed and
announced plans to review pledges by comparing them with
pledges from the 2002 Presidential election. CCEJ will grade
candidates' policies separately in each area but will not
come up with a total score, which would be equal to
supporting the candidate. Kim Min-young, secretary general
of PSPD, also said that PSPD will monitor the pledges,
especially on the issue of illegal political funds.

-------
COMMENT
-------

13. (U) NGOs are not likely to influence the 2007 presidential
elections as directly as they did in 2002 but they will
continue to play an important watchdog role. In addition,
Korean NGOs often substitute for political parties in bridging
the gap between the public and the government, as Kim Il from
Joongang Ilbo's Civil Society Institute and Professor Park
told us. However, it seems that South Korean NGOs face a
choice: whether to stay away from politics to maintain their
credibility in their areas of advocacy, or whether to jump
into the political fray and be regarded essentially as
political parties.
VERSHBOW

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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