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S. Koreans Stew With Stalemate

March 01, 1987|Sam Jameson | Sam Jameson is The Times' correspondent in Tokyo

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — A student uprising, a coup and an assassination followed by a coup led to the only changes in government that South Korea has experienced in its 39-year history as a republic.

Less than a year from now, another change is scheduled.

Most Korean and foreign analysts predict that this educated, energetic, Confucian society will resort to none of the three previous methods in selecting a new leader. Nonetheless, South Korea has never been so clearly headed for a political explosion. Only the timing, extent and details of the upheaval remain to be seen.

President Chun Doo Hwan finishes his constitutionally limited term in office on Feb. 24, 1988; he has pledged to make his retirement the first peaceful transfer of power in South Korean history. Last May, Chun's ruling Democratic Justice Party added a promise--to assure that the turnover process will "guarantee the people a free choice of government."

In June, with Chun's blessing, the ruling party and the major opposition group, the New Korea Democratic Party, established a Constitutional Revision Committee in the National Assembly to carry out reforms making such a choice possible.

The reform process must include re-writing Chun's authoritarian 1980 constitution in the Assembly, submitting proposed amendments to a referendum, changing election laws, nominating candidates, staging campaigns and, finally, holding elections. If greater democracy is to be achieved, Draconian laws controlling the press and labor unions, curtailing the right to assemble and the right of free speech, will also need overhaul.

Yet Koreans still haven't started the process. They remain locked in stalemate over opposing demands for a parliamentary versus a presidential form of government as election day approaches.

With about 41,000 U.S. troops stationed within target range of communist North Korea--men at risk if instability in the south encourages trouble from the north--the United States watches nervously on the sidelines. U.S. officials say they cannot act as "brokers" between the two sides.

Each week passes as if it were another round in a game of political Russian roulette. This week, the trigger will be pulled again. Tuesday is the 49th night after the death of Park Jong Chul, 21, a Seoul National University student who died while being interro1734440037a Buddhist tradition that the 49th night after death is significant, opposition forces are planning a memorial march for Park.

Chun has admitted that the policemen were torturing Park and has apologized for it, firing both his home affairs minister and national police chief-- but only after the initial story concocted by police was contradicted by the doctor who pronounced Park dead.

A popular uproar over the death is real--and serious. So is the issue of torture, a practice that has reportedly been curtailed, but not eliminated, under Chun.

As one Western diplomat put it, "The mere threat of torture is an instrument of terror." South Korean governments over the years have honed it into "a disgustingly useful . . . but effective tool to control the people."

The continuing controversy only moves the clock along. Opposition leaders Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, confident that the pressure of time is on their side, are using the incident to pressure Chun for a presidential form of government with direct elections.

The two charismatic Kims believe that the opposition's only chance to seize power as Chun leaves office is through a direct presidential election. Korean political scientists agree.

Campaigns in local areas of South Korea, one university professor said, focus on such issues as "how well the candidate knows the police chief." Opposition candidates usually don't know the police chief at all.

Presidential elections, on the other hand, can turn on the personality and fame of the candidates, as Chun's ruling party recognizes. Its aspirants to succeed Chun have all the charisma of hard-nosed army generals--which is exactly what they were when they helped Chun to take power in a May, 1980, coup. Even leading businessmen don't like them.

Lee Man Sup, the leader of the tiny in-between Korea National Party, summed up the confrontation well, describing the two Kims as bent on "grabbing power," Chun's forces as intent on "grasping power."

Most analysts rate the chances for democracy as higher if the opposition should take power, but the fundamental conflict is over power itself.

Western diplomats see the stalemate as the result of a dichotomy.

Many commanders of the 625,000-man Korean military establishment, concerned about a continuing threat from communist North Korea, reportedly favor "civilianizing" the Korean government. So does Gaston J. Sigur, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific. But no military leader trusts either of the Kims, whom they label "rabble-rousers."

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