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South Korea: Test of Wills

March 23, 1986

South Korean opposition groups are stepping up their campaign to have the next president chosen by direct popular vote, instead of indirectly through a huge electoral college. Without a constitutional change to permit this, the opposition believes that it will be unable to gain the presidency before the mid-1990s at the earliest. It is precisely for this reason that President Chun Doo Hwan's regime opposes any tinkering with the presidential selection process. And so a major test of political wills and power has begun.

Last year South Korea's two biggest opposition parties won 49% of the votes cast in National Assembly elections, against only 35.3% for Chun's ruling Democratic Justice Party. Leaders of the opposition groups, which have since merged, believe that they can win the scheduled 1988 presidential election, but only if a direct vote for president is permitted. Chun has agreed to consider constitutional change, but not before 1989. Since Chun has said that he won't seek to retain his office after 1988, his ability to act in 1989 on even this modest concession is open to doubt.

Chun's opponents have begun circulating petitions to amend the constitution. The regime says that while the petition movement is legal its goal is not. Under the constitution, adopted in 1980 after Chun took power from a short-lived civilian government, the amending process can be initiated only by the president or by a majority of the Assembly. Since Chun's party continues to control the Assembly because of the way seats are allotted under a proportional-representation system, neither of these actions is likely.

Chun contends that the petition campaign poses a threat to national order and well-being at a time when South Korea, host to this year's Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics, is seeking to present to the world an image of social stability and prosperity. These major international events and the foreign attention that they will attract are also much in the thoughts of Chun's opponents. Chun is eager to show off the remarkable economic progress that South Korea has made in the last two decades even as it has had to devote much of its resources to defense against a threatening Communist regime to the north. He does not want that effort overshadowed by any internal political challenge to his rule.

On a number of university campuses students considerably more radical than the opposition parties have begun a spring round of anti-government demonstrations. More significant support for constitutional change has now come from Catholic and Protestant religious leaders of South Korea's growing Christian community, which makes up about one-fourth of the population. And there are signs of anti-government stirrings within a middle class that has long been politically passive.

The move for constitutional change symbolizes the effort to secure greater civil liberties in South Korea. Chun can respond to this effort by resorting to the strong-arm measures that he has used in the past, or he can choose the wiser course of seeking accommodation with his responsible political opponents. South Korea is indeed under external threat, and is likely to remain so for a long time. That threat does not justify the indefinite imposition of authoritarian rule. Other countries that also live under the gun are able to enjoy democratic political activity and a free press. There is no reason why South Korea shouldn't join their ranks.

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