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Seoul Searching

South Korea isn't a democracy—yet


There's no question that something wonderful happened here on June 29. South Korea's authoritarian government had been expected to concoct the narrowest set of concessions necessary to placate its opposition, stop the rioting, and avoid martial law. Instead, ruling party chairman Roh Tae Woo went on television and offered the opposition everything it had asked for: direct popular election of the next president, release of political prisoners, restoration of political rights for opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, freedom of the press, autonomy for localities and universities, and respect for human rights. It seemed that South Korea was passing in a flash from dictatorship to democracy. Two days later the dictator himself endorsed Roh's proposals in full. "Let us advance into a new era of democracy," President Chun Doo Hwan told his people. "Let us throw the doors wide open on an era of grand national reconciliation." Happy as Americans should be for the long-suffering South Koreans if this all truly comes to pass, the satisfaction will be even greater because it comes as part of a gratifying trend. Following the Philippines, South Korea will be the second Asian nation to go democratic in the last two years, and there is a liberalizing trend at work in Taiwan as well. Following similar movements in Central and South America during the last six years and in Spain and Portugal over the last 12 years. South Korea's progress seems to justify America's abiding faith that democracy is not just good for the world, but also the wave of the future. And the record in South Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere suggests that, whatever its failures in respecting democratic procedures at home, the Reagan administration knows how to be a good shepherd for democracy abroad.

Before anyone gets overwhelmed with euphoria, however, it needs to be observed that South Korea is not home yet. Twice before, in 1960 and 1979, the country got a brief taste of freedom—a "Seoul Spring"—but each time civilian government proved too weak to control events, there was disorder in the streets, and the military seized power. In 1960 a blackmailing, rumor-mongering press contributed to the chaos—a point that opposition co-leader Kim Young Sam made in appealing to newspaper political editors for responsible behavior during a private meeting on July 1.

This time there is more reason for hope, especially because South Korea's much-enlarged middle class is demanding political reform, top military officials are reluctant to get involved in politics, and South Korea's manufacturing tycoons think that pictures of tear gas on TV news shows around the world are bad for exports. The country is already the focus of world attention as the site of next year's Olympics, and South Koreans seem determined to establish a political system that will gain them as much respect as their spectacular economic progress already has earned.

STILL, a huge number of compromises need to be reached between the opposition and the government before elections can be held and reconciliation really can take place. South Korea's Confucian culture emphasizes authority and hierarchy rather than consensus, which in the past has always prevented democratic development. According to one experienced Western diplomat here, "Our concept of a free market of ideas is close to their vision of hell. It looks like chaos to them. In our politics, a deal is the measure of success. In theirs, compromise means a shameful abandonment of principle."

Even though Roh's speech represented an unprecedented compromise on principles, and though he followed it up with his first meetings ever with Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, another Western diplomat warned that "this [calm] is just temporary. There are a hell of a lot of fights to come, and some of them will be in the streets. There will be more crises. The Koreans are great brinksmen."

Already demonstrations and teargassing have resumed on a small scale following the death of a student mortally wounded in last month's riots. An even bigger fight is developing over the opposition's demand that all political prisoners be released before other negotiations begin. The opposition claims that up to 3,000 people are being held for offenses ranging anywhere from simple dissent to violent rioting. The government is ready to release only about 2,000, and has said that amnesty will not be granted to those guilty of "homicide, bodily injury, arson, and vandalism" or those who "have committed treason by repudiating the basic free and democratic order on which our survival hinges."

This is a dispute over deep principle, not technicalities. The government, as the defender of order, traditionally has regarded any dissent as a threat to its authority. The military has deemed itself the ultimate guarantor of order. Meanwhile the opposition justifiably regards student demonstrators—even radicals who do not believe in democracy— as the battering ram for democratic change. Historically, students often have suffered death, grievous injury, long imprisonment, and the loss of their careers in order to protest government repression.

In South Korea the security police watch, tap, photograph, and infiltrate on a vast scale. They haul people out of their homes by the hair, lock them up, and often beat them brutally for labor organizing, demonstrating, listening to North Korean broadcasts, publishing, or just reading left-wing literature. Within the past year, the Chun government was jailing people merely for signing petitions on behalf of direct elections. During last month's riots, horrified American journalists say they saw police crush the spine of one student with kicks and then carry him away with his legs dangling lifeless beneath him. The Americans could find no record of his being admitted to any hospital.

Another deep issue of principle is "Kwangju," shorthand for the 1980 massacre of 200 to 2,000 rebels by South Korean army troops during disorders in that southern city protesting Chun's military takeover of the country. It's possible—if an atmosphere of trust develops on other issues— that compromises may be reached over Kwangju. Roh, Chun's supporter in the 1979 military coup, is hinting at apologies from the government, compensation for victims' families, and construction of a monument to the dead. Kim Dae Jung, who was sentenced to death on unsubstantiated charges of fomenting the Kwangju rebellion, said after Roh's speech, "I absolutely oppose any political revenge against Chun and his cronies if they will cooperate in bringing about democracy." If they do not, of course, the opposition might revert to its old stance of demanding trials and punishment of those responsible, which in turn will make it all the more difficult to reach agreement on political issues.

It helps in the forthcoming negotiations that each side believes it can win a fair election. But there is much wrangling to come over such questions as who will control the election machinery, including vote-counting, and whether the opposition will get a chance to present its case on government-controlled television. Every government employee in South Korea is appointed by presidential authority, down to the lowliest school janitor, which gives the ruling Democratic Justice Party a potentially powerful advantage at the local level. Until the week of Roh's speech, opposition politicians were almost totally frozen out of TV coverage. Even afterward, the best they got was one closeup shot of Kim Young Sam—the first ever—and that only in connection with a surprise visit from Roh. Newspapers have been extensively quoting Kim Dae Jung for the first time in seven years, but TV has yet to show him.

TO GUARANTEE that the elections are impartial, Kim Dae Jung is recommending that Chun form a "pannational" government not controlled by the DJP He has not demanded it, but that could happen if the opposition begins to suspect that it won't get a fair shake in the voting. To back up this or any other condition, students are prepared to resume demonstrations. They developed an increased prestige among the middle class during the June demonstrations by forcing Chun to abandon his April 13 decision ending constitutional negotiations and decreeing that his successor would be chosen by rules written by the DJP If the government is seen not to be bargaining in good faith, or if negotiations otherwise bog down, there could be a resumption of large-scale street disorder, and renewed fears of martial law—"brinksmanship," as the diplomat said. The negotiating process also is under severe time pressure. Chun plans to leave office in February, so that elections must be held this year, and the constitution requires a 90-day period for ratification of new election laws by the National Assembly and notice to the public.

IF SOUTH KOREA actually navigates its way through the dangers ahead, the credit for its passage to democracy will belong overwhelmingly to the South Koreans themselves. But the Reagan administration so far has developed a record of constructive intervention that contrasts sharply with that of its well-meaning predecessor, Jimmy Carter's ambassador to South Korea, William Gleysteen, charges in a book published last year called The Diplomacy of Human Rights (University Press of America) that relentless public criticism from Washington "may have unwittingly contributed to President Park's fall and the unhappy chain of subsequent events," meaning Chun's 1979 military coup, Kwangju, and seven years of continuing dictatorship.

According to Gleysteen, former dictator Park Chung Hee already had been weakened by Carter's plans to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and by the Koreagate scandal involving bribery of U.S, officials, "A steady stream of public complaint" from official spokesmen in Washington "failed to accomplish anything [positive] in Korea," Gleysteen wrote. Meanwhile, "Our high human rights profile emboldened opposition and dissident elements . . . encouraging them to climb out on a limb from which we could not rescue them"

Carter finally held a summit with Park in June 1979, during which the United States reversed plans for troop withdrawals and Park released some political prisoners, "But the period of relaxation was brief," wrote Gleysteen, "Within months, political, labor, and student problems boiled up, and President Park lost his grip to the point that his confidant, Korean CIA director Kim Jae Kyu, seemed convinced—quite wrongly—that the nation would welcome his bloody assassination of Park," which occurred on October 26, "Partly because of their conviction that a new era of U.S. support had dawned under Carter," Gleysteen concludes, "opposition political leaders, labor unionists, religious dissidents, and students adopted more confrontational tactics on the assumption that they would have U,S, support. Fed by confrontation and other volatile factors, events spiraled tragically out of control."

The Reagan administration, by contrast, avoided identifying with the opposition or undercutting the regime. Oppositionists charged the United States was tilting toward Chun, but Reagan officials claim their posture allowed them to maintain credibility with the government and nudge it toward democracy. Reagan officials contend that in both the Philippines and South Korea the government always knew that the United States stood for more democracy, even if the public did not, and that instead of trying to force change before its time, the United States waited until the countries were ready. Reagan intermediaries did induce Chun to spare Kim Dae Jung's life in 1980, but in return Chun became the first foreign leader to visit Reagan after his inauguration, infuriating the opposition.

 In an interview on June 30, Kim Dae Jung said that it was not until June 10 of this year, when it became obvious the South Korean public would not stand for Chun's effort to deliver the presidency to Roh, that the Reagan administration began working for democracy. This ignores what Reagan officials say was their real pattern: constant praise for Chun's announced decision to be the first South Korean leader to relinquish power voluntarily, plus quiet diplomatic intervention to protest human rights abuses and encourage reform. The administration went public in a major way in February, when Assistant Secretary of State Gaston Sigur urged the South Korean government to "civilianize." Sigur also was the key player last month in warning against martial law or a military coup.

Western diplomats say that martial law—or a variation called garrison decree, in which troops are used to back up civilian authority—was strongly considered by the Chun government on June 19, after police nearly lost control in several cities, especially Pusan. The State Department issued a sharp statement that day. President Reagan wrote to Chun counseling restraint, and Sigur came to Seoul for a visit from June 22 to 25. While there, he visited Kim Dae Jung and his car was menacingly bounced by demonstrators shouting the opposition leader's name and "Yankee Go Home," Diplomats strongly suspect the demonstrators actually were government goons. On his departure, Sigur said, "Our position is crystal clear. We oppose martial law." Asked if he had said that to Chun, he answered, "I did indeed."

According to one Western diplomat, "When we saw that things were getting unstuck, we brought in Mr. Democracy, an old friend, to tell them publicly that there shouldn't be military intervention." Sigur, this diplomat pointed out, had 20 years of standing as a North Asian scholar and was a member of Reagan's 1980 Asian policy transition team, along with two other conservatives who became Reagan's ambassadors to South Korea, Dixie Walker and current Ambassador James Lilley.

The Reaganites, says a diplomat, "are able to say to the regime, 'We love you, but it's time to change,' which a Dick Holbrooke [Carter's top Asian diplomat] never could do. If you lecture the Koreans about military intervention, what you get back is, 'What did you do at Kent State? This is accepted practice around the world.' Instead, we say, 'If you do it, there will be terrible consequences.' "The "consequences" are unspecified sanctions from the U.S. Congress, which suggests that liberal Democrats also have a useful role to play in Reaganite diplomacy, if only as bogeymen.

WITH LUCK, South Korea won't have any more dictators after Chun leaves office. Who will succeed him? Until June 29 there seemed no question that in a fair election Roh's chances would be zero. He was the hated Chun's crony and designated successor, and was even being undercut by his sponsor and other members of the party he headed. Chun had assigned Roh the task of negotiating constitutional reform, but then pushed him aside to cancel the talks. The weekend before Roh's dramatic Monday morning speech, rumors were floating that he would be dropped as the DJP's presidential candidate, "Roh was facing political death," said one Western diplomat, "He had to take a hell of a political gamble, or he was finished."

Colleagues and foreign diplomats say that Roh had been favorably disposed to a sweeping compromise for several months, but was decisively moved to act by members of the majority DJP caucus in the National Assembly, who argued that the party could win an election under the right circumstances but was going to lose control of the country if events continued as they were going. The June 21 caucus may represent one of the many milestones of political maturity that South Korea has observed lately—the establishment of a real political party system. In the past, parties have been solely the creation of a major personality such as Chun or Park, and have died out the minute that man passed from the scene.

 In an election race, the DJP will be able to claim that it is the party of national security, prosperity, world respect, the Olympics—and, now, democracy as well. In addition, Roh's sweeping action has given him luster. Even though he is a former general, he's developed into a canny politician as his party's National Assembly floor leader and party chairman. Opposition politicians say they probably will build their campaign around the theme "Get Rid of the Military" and around alleged corruption by Chun and members of his family. One opposition politician said, "In Korean politics, to advocate is to lose; to oppose is to win.”

 ACTUALLY, the opposition Reunification Democratic Party does have an attractive, progressive program that includes reduced government control of the economy (which is strongly influenced by an Economic Planning Board and government-dominated banks), greater power and independence for the National Assembly and judiciary (currently virtual rubber stamps for the president), protection of labor unions, expansion of women's rights (currently almost nonexistent), expansion of welfare programs, political neutrality for the military, and elimination of the combat police.

Both parties favor maintenance of military security against North Korea, and also talks designed to reunify the country peacefully, if that's possible. Both parties also favor maintaining military ties with the United States, although on the left-to-radical end of the opposition there is deep bitterness against the United States for supporting the country's various dictators in the past. The radical left is wedded to "dependency theory"—the idea that South Korea and its people have been used by the United States (and also Japan) as a source of cheap labor for multinational corporations and as a storage place for nuclear weapons. The radicals also accuse the United States of fanning hostility between North and South Korea to maintain its strategic position.

Regardless of which party rules South Korea in the future, there is bound to be friction with the United States based on trade competition, rising nationalism, America's relative loss of military and economic power, and resentment over past dependency. Even South Koreans who praised American efforts to bring about reform were grousing last month that Americans—not just the Reagan people, but even such long-standing human rights advocates as Representative Stephen Solarz—seemed to be taking credit for what the South Koreans themselves had accomplished. Even South Korean businessmen with close ties to the United States say that America's top interests in their country have been in stability and the protection of Japan from communism, not South Korean democracy, "When you could get what you wanted with military dictators in charge, that was OK," said one executive, "Now that Korea won't stand for that anymore, you've changed positions."

IN THE presidential race, the probable RDP candidate is Kim Young Sam, who is a devoted fighter for democracy and a political centrist, but who lacks the populist charisma of a Kim Dae Jung. The latter Kim, who got 45 percent of the vote against Park Chung Hee in 1971, is bitterly hated by the military—so much so that many observers expect that his accession to power would spark a coup. Kim promised last November that he would not run for president if the government agreed to hold direct presidential elections. After Roh's concession on that point, Kim began making candidate-like noises but said there was "no change, at this time" from his November commitment. The Kims disastrously split once before, in 1980, and have vowed not to do it again, but so far they have not developed a concerted strategy for fighting Roh.

Neither Kim, despite heroic service to the cause of democracy, is wildly popular among the South Korean population. In Kim Dae Jung's case, this is partly the result of regional prejudice. He is a Cholla, hailing from the traditionally depressed (and repressed) southwest region, "Chollas have chips on their shoulders," according to South Korean stereotype, and they are also said to be crafty and unscrupulous, Kim did not graduate from any of South Korea's elite prep schools or colleges, and his enemies like to label him an opportunist and a demagogue, Kim Young Sam has none of his collaborator's cultural handicaps, but he suffers from lack of experience in governing and from the reputation of being an "ordinary politician" without much vision.

American officials, unfortunately, betray a preference for Roh Tae Woo that may yet get this country into trouble with the opposition and with the South Korean public. There has been no public endorsement, of course, but background briefers tend to extol the virtues of Roh and highlight the disadvantages of the Kims. The Reagan administration has done good work up to now, but there is still more to do in securing South Korean democracy—by talking to the military about adopting a new and less intrusive role in politics, by suggesting constitutional compromises and helping to guarantee fair elections. With difficult negotiations and potential disruptions still ahead, the United States can't afford to seem partisan.

This article originally appeared in the July 27, 1987 issue of the magazine