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Korean Tightrope

March 10, 1985

With the explanation that "a new political climate is now prevailing amid stability born of a harmonizing blend of freedom and order," the South Korean government has lifted the ban that it imposed more than four years ago on 14 prominent politicians. At the same time, President Chun Doo Hwan's regime has warned that this step toward liberalization "must not mean a regression into the old era." The meaning of that message won't be lost on Koreans. The government expects the emphasis in the "new political climate" to be more on order than on freedom. Dissent, within limits, will be tolerated, but if those limits are exceeded the government can always return to more repressive controls.

All this plainly puts the burden for what Chun would accept as responsible behavior on his most outspoken opponents, the New Korea Democratic Party, which less than a month ago made an impressive showing in national elections. Energized by the 29.2% of the popular vote that it drew--against 35.3% for Chun's supporters--the New Korea Democratic Party makes no secret of its intention to press for increased democracy. One of the party's spiritual godfathers, Kim Dae Jung, now freed from house arrest but still forbidden to engage in formal political activities, made that clear in a public speech shortly after the government's ban was lifted.

Where does South Korea go from here? It is not inconceivable that Chun is in fact thinking about gradually broadening freedoms in the years ahead, provided that the authority of his government does not seem to be threatened in the process. He does not, in other words, want to be perceived as yielding to domestic threats or pressures, but rather seeks to allow liberalization at his own pace and on his own conditions. The problem with this approach is clear. If the opposition does not keep up its demands for greater freedom, Chun could have an excuse to claim that it is content with what it has. If on the other hand the opposition presses too much, Chun could have the excuse for accusing it of irresponsible behavior, and draw back from any further liberalization. For Chun, it is pretty much a no-lose situation. For his opponents, it is a challenge that will take great political delicacy to overcome.

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