WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (UPI) -- The legacy of the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament is a greater sense of agreement among Koreans and improved relations between South Korea and its neighbors, a senior Korean legislator told a Washington think tank gathering.
Chung Mong-Joon, a member of the Korean National Assembly, former chairman of Hyundai Heavy Industries, co-chairman of the Korean Organizing Committee for the 2002 World Cup Soccer Games and vice president of the Federation Internationale de Football, or FIFA, spoke at the conservative Heritage Foundation on Thursday about his thoughts on South Korea's current domestic and international political situation.
South Korean democracy is stronger than ever, but still faces an uncertain future, according to Chung.
"Until 10 years ago, Korean politics was almost synonymous with student demonstrations, tear gas and riot police," he said. "Today, we rarely see student demonstrations. Instead, we have orderly elections and peaceful transition of power.
"However ... we still worry about regional rivalries, ideological polarization, political corruption, and the absence of effective and enlightened leadership at the national scene."
Democracy is no longer threatened by military coups, but a lack of consensus among political leaders, Chung said.
"The more relevant threat to democracy today tends to be of the creeping kind -- that is, the danger of democracy being unable to perform and function properly," he said.
The World Cup, however, shifted domestic focus from political strife to a greater sense of purpose, he said.
"The World Cup has brought many benefits to Korea ... such as unity and harmony among people, sense of pride and public confidence, and their new outlook toward the world," Chung said. "It has helped to transcend age, gender, social background, and to overcome regional and ideological differences. We were all joined by the common cause and spirit."
The World Cup has also elevated South Korea's position in the world and improved relations with North Korea and Japan, Chung said. North Korea did not participate in the tournament, but Chung said it was positive to know that North Korean soldiers watched several games and cheered for their southern neighbors.
Chung believes Korea and its Asian neighbors can learn something from the soccer diplomacy he says is practiced in Europe.
"Like Europe, I believe that Asia is also a place where (soccer) can foster regional stability and prosperity," Chung said. "(Soccer) is a common language shared by all Asians. With (South) Korea and Japan co-hosting and with China participating, the 2002 World Cup has provided a unique opportunity for the three Northeast Asian countries to start developing a sense of community."
Paolo Pasicolan, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation's Asian studies department, said Chung's emphasis on soccer was a subtle way to establish a platform for a presidential run in December. Pasicolan noted that Chung's popularity rose significantly during the World Cup.
Although Chung has not officially announced his candidacy, he mentioned himself as a possible contender for the position.
Richard Bush, director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Northeast Asian policy studies, says he is skeptical about the positive impact of the World Cup on the relationship between the two Koreas.
"I think I've seen references to (the idea of soccer diplomacy), but I'm not sure I believe it," Bush said. "On June 29th, when the World Cup was occurring, a North Korean naval ship shot up a South Korean ship. They eventually expressed regret for it, but somebody had different agenda than soccer reconciliation."
The naval skirmish left at least four South Korean sailors dead and 19 wounded. Bush says the North Koreans most likely initiated the incident in order to achieve a better bargaining position with American diplomats who were heading to Pyongyang at the time. He says the encounter backfired for the North, however.
Although Chung believes domestic squabbling in South Korea may be a sign of trouble, Bush says he sees no long-term domestic threat to the South Korean government.
"I think the fundamentals (of Korean democracy) are sound," Bush says. "But let's face it, democracy is a system for structured conflict. There will be times when one or more political parties will see greater value in attacking the other and creating life more difficult for the other than working with their opponents to produce good results. If the ultimate measure of democracy is good results for the voters, sometimes partisanship gets in the way of that."
The only long-term issue of consequence that South Korea needs to be focused on, according to Bush, is its relations with the North. Pasicolan said he wished Chung had been more explicit in his speech about trilateral relations among the United States and the two Koreas. Bush, however, says there is little the South can presently do and the next step clearly belongs to the North.
"The main agenda now is whether and on what terms it is possible to re-engage with North Korea in a way that somehow breaks the deadlock and reduces tension somewhat," Bush says. "I think that it is fundamentally up to North Korea."