SEOUL, South Korea — Just 18 months before the Olympic torch is lit in Seoul, South Korea's rival political factions are entering the final, critical rounds in a world-class bout of brinksmanship.
The outcome of the match-up between the military-dominated government and the main opposition party will set the mood for the 1988 Seoul Summer Games--and set South Korea's political course for years to come.
Some in the opposition talk ominously of Olympic disaster next year if the generals this year deny them the kind of permanent democracy they want.
"The Olympic Games would not be possible," one well-placed member of the opposition New Korea Democratic Party asserted in an interview. "The people of Korea would disavow the Olympics."
Knowledgeable observers are skeptical. Korean pride in staging the sports extravaganza would overwhelm any attempt at a boycott by the political opposition, they say.
But the U.S. Embassy, always influential here, is nonetheless pressing both President Chun Doo-hwan and his rivals to reach a compromise soon, to end decades of authoritarian rule and take the tension out of the Olympic countdown.
One proposal the Americans view favorably: establishing an interim, "reconciliation" government of all parties to guide this U.S.-allied nation of 41 million people through next year's nervous days in the camera eye of the world.
If Seoul's political plans are shaky, its Olympic preparations are solid. South Korea's ruling generals have taken on the task like a military campaign.
Across the half-mile-wide Han River from central Seoul, on flatlands where silkworm plantations once flourished, a landscaped collection of stadiums and gymnasiums has taken shape. Only an indoor swimming pool and housing for Olympic athletes and the visiting press remain uncompleted.
An eight-lane Olympic Expressway has been laid down along the Han's southern banks. Seoul's new subway system has been extended. Some tile-roofed slums, considered eyesores, have been demolished.
In their eagerness not to offend Olympic tourists, the authorities have even ordered restaurants serving "health stew"--a traditional Korean favorite otherwise known as dogmeat--to move to premises away from main streets.
And, as usual in this heavily policed state, the security blanket is thick.
Dozens of policemen, many armed with M-16 automatic rifles, already keep a close watch on the idle Olympic Park, guarding against anti-government student protesters, North Korean saboteurs or other threats.
"Most Koreans regard the Seoul Olympics as the most glorious event in their 5,000-year-old history," Park Seh-jik, president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee, said in an interview.
Park, a retired general and onetime deputy director of the national intelligence agency, said he also hopes the 24th Olympiad will be a "stimulus for political development."
Each side in Seoul's bitter political debate is trying to turn the international sports event to its advantage.
Chun, a general who came to power in a coup in 1980, has long said he will step down when his constitutional term expires next Feb. 24.
In the name of "stability," however, the unpopular president initially sought to postpone any political liberalization until after the Olympics. That would essentially guarantee election of his Democratic Justice Party's presidential candidate by the existing electoral college.
But public pressure, including an explosion of student demonstrations, forced Chun last May to agree to negotiations on constitutional revision between his party and the New Korea Democratic Party.
The opposition group, led by dissidents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam, seeks a direct, popular presidential election, one it would probably win. The generals' Democratic Justice Party, on the other hand, now proposes a European-style parliamentary system, with a strong prime minister.
The talks deadlocked late last year. Now, as time runs short, the two sides are maneuvering into final positions.
The opposition hopes the generals' fear of political disruption during the Olympics will soon force them into compromise. But many analysts believe the ruling group instead will try to convert popular support for the Olympics into a political blank check for themselves.
Chae Mun-shik, a leading Democratic Justice Party legislator, said last week that if a constitutional compromise is not reached soon, the government may call a national referendum to freeze the debate until after the Olympics, scheduled for Sept. 17-Oct. 2, 1988.
Some government partisans still worry about an opposition boycott.
"Calling off the dialogue is risky," one official confided to a reporter. Like others here who either rely on the government payroll or fear arbitrary arrest, this informant asked not to be identified.
Noting that the government is counting on 72,000 volunteers to help run the Games, he said, "If there's a boycott, and the people don't get involved, we won't be able to pull it off."
But others believe the security forces can easily keep any student protesters in check during the Olympics, and national excitement over the Games will strengthen Chun's hand politically, particularly if Communist North Korea cooperates in staging the events, a possibility now being negotiated.
"The Olympics are a tremendous force for the government side," concluded a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's just too big a deal for the (opposition) to take on."
The Americans are still pushing for conciliation. Ambassador James R. Lilley, who has been meeting with opposition leaders, is said to favor the idea of an all-party interim government for the Olympic period, as proposed by the Korean National Party, a minor opposition group.
"Maybe that's the compromise we'll see a couple of months down the track," said the U.S. official.