Peanut Butter Knife

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Roh Moo-hyun: Showing the Way Forward

Last night, I found out that I've been added as a front-page contributor at Unbossed. I'm flattered to have even been considered as a writer there as they do some great work. Here's hoping I don't disappoint! My first post will be going up this afternoon, but here's a preview:

Does this sound familiar?

" (Candidate) used and even invented new ways of
campaigning that worked in concert with the changes
within society, whereas (the opponents) relied upon
traditional campaign tactics. (Candidate's) campaign
focused on communication, volunteers, and information
technologies...It represented the nation's first
large, voluntary support organization for an
individual politician. The association, 70,000-
members strong, became actively involved in party
primaries, electoral campaigning, and fundraising. It
organized rallies during the primaries and campaign,
led online debates, and initiated the movement for
small donations to be made to their candidate. Thanks
to the association's efforts, hundreds of thousands of
Internet users visited (candidate's) official campaign
site every day, exchanging and sharing views on
election issues during the campaign. They also helped
(candidate) accumulate...approximately U.S. $6 million
from 200,000 small-amount contributors."

No, the candidate in question is not Howard Dean; and the organization is not Daily Kos,, ACT, or even DFA. The above quote is talking about Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea, though you'd be forgiven if you thought otherwise. Roh's electoral story does sound an awful lot like that of a certain former governor of Vermont. Two key differences however: Roh's campaign happened in 2001-02 and today, Roh Moo-Hyun is the sitting President of S. Korea.

Over here, those of us who became active in politics through the 2004 elections via the internet are facing what seems to be an uphill battle for legitimacy and more importantly, victory. After the heartbreak of the Iowa caucuses, netroots denizens were able to use their influence to bring attention to a number of races that would otherwise have been written off by the traditional party leaders. Though there were victories at state and local levels; and nationally, netroots support played a part in victories by Barack Obama and Stephanie Herseth; many other candidates fell short. Tony Knowles, Stan Matsunaka, Lois Murphy, Brad Carson, Ginny Schrader, Christine Cegelis, Jeff Seemann, and Paul Hackett to name a few. Some came pretty close, while others reaffirmed their long-shot status, but the question of how much influence the netroots actually had was still open to some debate.

So how was President Roh able to use these same methods with such a different result? The answer lies less in the similarities between Roh and Dean than in a few key national differences. And as such, Roh's story is very relevant for American progressives to be aware of.

Though there are some more obvious differences between the two countries, a key factor in Roh's election was that over 50% of the electorate were in their 20s and 30s. The so called 3-8-6 Generation (also known as the 20/30 Generation) had come of age during the harshly repressive right wing regimes of the 1980s. Many had taken part in campus protests to bring democracy to S. Korea, some had been arrested. As a civil rights attorney, Roh represented many of these students and learning their stories of torture and other human rights abuses, Roh became a leader in the pro-democracy movement. With this backdrop, its easy to see how the critical mass attained by the 3-8-6 Generation during this decade provided a rich environment for a progressive-populist like Roh to be elected. Their anger for having lived under repressive right wing rule for so long only fueled this critical mass.

Going hand in hand with being such a young country, S. Korea is also the most wired. The nation leads the world in just about every category when it comes to broadband internet access. Both countries have a total internet penetration of about 67%, however 80% of S. Korean internet users have broadband access in their homes compared to roughly 33% in the US. In other ways too, S. Korea is leading the world in becoming an IT society. PC purchases are subsidized for low-income families, 13% of the country's GDP comes from IT related fields (compared to 8% in the US) and what's more is that this broadband is faster than that in most parts of the world, as S. Koreans connect at 2Mbps, 4 times faster than those in western countries. In short, information technology is at the center of life in S. Korea, while it remains on the outskirts for many Americans.

Because of these advantages, and not despite them, American netroots organizers have much to learn from their Korean counterparts. It won't be long before broadband access begins to become more mainstream in the American household (and pushing it's expansion as a matter of policy is not a bad idea for Democrats either). In addition, each year millions more Americans raised on the internet will come of voting age. As these events occur, netroots campaigns will also move from the fringes to the center of American political life. In addition, the 2002 Korean election saw a 70% turnout. Having an informed electorate is having an engaged electorate and when voters feel like the issues matter to their lives, progressives win. Until then, we can keep making progress by following the lead of Howard Dean in reforming American party politics and maybe we can also look at the S. Korean experience for other innovations, such as the use of text messaging, and continued internet outreach by candidates after they reach office. Having leaders like Howard Dean and Roh Moo-Hyun won't hurt either.

Further Reading:

Broadband Penetration and Participatory Politics: South Korea Case

The Balancer: Roh Moo-hyun's Vision of Korean Politics and the Future of Northeast Asia

South Korea: At the Forefront of the Internet Broadband Revolution


  • At 10:56 PM, Anonymous em dash said…

    Meh. You more than deserve to be a contributing writer at Unbossed. Looking forward to insightful posts and some cool stuff on music and politics.

    Excelent post, btw.


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