I WAS lucky enough recently to visit South Korea-a country that is changing extraordinarily fast. It belongs to the handful of dynamic East Asian economies that have been tilting the centre of gravity of global capitalism towards the Pacific Rim.
In the past few years things have become much more difficult economically. In 1997 South Korea suffered the so called 'IMF crisis'-a massive slump which the International Monetary Fund exploited to force the economy open to foreign capital.
South Korea is growing quickly again, but on the basis of an enormous gamble. The chaebol-the giant family firms that dominate the Korean economy-have concentrated their exports and foreign investments on China. South Korea, in other words, has been piggybacking on the prodigious Chinese economic boom.
So far this has worked, but if the Chinese economy overheats-which some commentators think is beginning to happen-the resulting slump will drag South Korea down as well. Meanwhile politics is also changing in South Korea.
Between 1960 and 1993 the country was run by a military dictatorship that presided over the country's rapid industrialisation. A huge rebellion by workers and students in 1987 finally forced the army to give up power.
But political liberalisation during the 1990s was more facade than reality. The left continued to suffer repression under the National Security Law, which has been used to treat socialists as North Korean agents.
Politics was dominated by the 'three Kims'. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung were opponents of the military dictatorship who were successively elected president during the 1990s.
The price of office was to compromise with the forces of the old order, represented by the third Kim, Kim Jong-pil. Architect of the 1960 military coup and the founder of the widely feared Korean Central Intelligence Agency, he dominated parliament in the 1990s.
The real political break came at the end of 2002. When two teenagers were run over by an American military vehicle, huge candlelit demonstrations took place. The US still maintains nearly 40,000 troops in South Korea, and the Bush administration was threatening at the time to go to war with the North Korean regime as well as Iraq. Even a conventional war on the Korean peninsula would cause hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The teenagers' deaths-the latest of many caused by the US military-catalysed massive popular opposition to US imperialism. The political beneficiary was Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal labour lawyer who won the presidential elections of December 2002. In office, Roh proved to be a disappointment. He continued the free market policies of his predecessors and pledged to send South Korean troops to help occupy Iraq.
As a result, his popularity slumped. The parties of the old order, still dominating parliament, seized their opportunity and impeached Roh on a petty pretext. This quasi-coup provoked huge protest demonstrations. In parliamentary elections held in April, the old order was swept away. Roh's Uri Party won a majority.
Kim Dae-jung's Millennium Democratic Party was almost obliterated. Kim Jong-pil lost his seat and has now been charged with accepting bribes from Samsung. Most significant of all, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) won ten seats. The DLP was founded in 2000. It is closely linked to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which played a key role in the last wave of mass strikes in 1997. South Korean society has moved sharply to the left. Many commentators have noted the immense numbers of young people who took part in the candlelit marches and the anti-impeachment protests.
Of course, Roh's electoral victory doesn't mean he can be trusted. He will continue to manoeuvre between his popular base, the chaebol, and US imperialism. That's why it's so important that South Korean workers now have their own political voice.
It's also important that socialists are active within the DLP, helping to pull it to the left and away from parliamentary compromise. The Sunday before last I spoke in Seoul to a 600-strong meeting organised by All Together, a socialist group inside the DLP.
All Together has been very actively involved in the anti-war and the anti-impeachment protests. It also had a strong presence at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January. Its emergence and growth are another sign that South Korean society is changing-for the better.