WASHINGTON — When South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan recently broke off talks with opposition politicians about constitutional reform and launched a new police crackdown on critics, he shattered a fragile Reagan Administration program to coax one of Asia's most robust capitalist economies onto the road to political democracy.
Indeed, the Administration was left without a fallback position when Chun announced three weeks ago that his successor would be indirectly elected, as he was--a process the Seoul government can easily manipulate.
Although U.S. officials acknowledge that a peaceful transition of power by any means would represent an important step forward for South Korea, with its history of coups and political violence, they worry that it will not be enough. At worst, they fear that it could result in chaos that plays into the hands of North Korea if substantial segments of the South Korean public consider the election unfair.
With Chun promising to leave office next February after seven years in power, the United States now finds itself locked in a dilemma over South Korea's future: watching a close ally make what the United States believes is a crucial mistake but finding little that it can do to head it off.
U.S. Official Urged Change
"The Republic of Korea's security relies as much upon responsive political institutions that promote the aspirations of its people as upon the mighty military capability it possesses," Gaston J. Sigur Jr., assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in a February speech that summed up U.S. concerns.
"Domestic political practices up to now--however well-suited they may have been for a simpler, slower-moving past--simply are inadequate to meet Korea's complex present and future needs." In that speech, Sigur said it was time for South Korea to end the military domination of the nation's political system.
For Washington and the West, the stakes in maintaining internal stability and spurring economic progress in South Korea are enormous.
South Korea, poor and weak after the Korean War, has emerged as one of Asia's most important nations. U.S. trade with South Korea exceeds that with some of Washington's traditional European partners. About 40,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea along the tense border with North Korea, dramatizing the country's strategic importance to U.S. global interests.
Oppose 'Strongman' System
U.S. officials believe that the nation can continue to make dramatic strides, but not unless it adopts a more representative form of government and abandons its four-decade-old version of the "strongman" system that the United States believes foments public unrest and political instability.
On Capitol Hill, the Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House East Asia subcommittees have called for the Administration to redouble its efforts to foster a compromise on the succession process and to make clear that the present situation is unacceptable. But U.S. officials and non-governmental experts generally acknowledge that the United States cannot enforce democracy from outside, and the lawmakers agree that Washington has only limited leverage on the Chun government.
The United States put all its effort into trying to persuade Chun and opposition leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam to hammer out a more democratic method of picking Chun's successor.
The president proposed switching to a parliamentary system with Parliament picking a prime minister. The opposition demanded direct elections for president. Neither side budged during months of squabbling before Chun ruled out change in the existing constitution, which calls for selection of the president by an electoral college of 5,300 prominent citizens.
Sparked New Protests
Chun's decision precipitated a new round of sometimes violent protest demonstrations accompanied by harsh police suppression. The Seoul government informed the U.S. Embassy in advance of Chun's April 13 announcement but made it clear that the president would go ahead regardless of Washington's opinion.
The Administration emphasized that the United States does not approve of Chun's action. But Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Asian and Pacific subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Administration's response was "too tame and tepid--we said we did not approve of the situation, but we have not made it clear enough that we disapprove of it."
However, it is far from clear what the United States can do to force a change. Washington cannot threaten foreign aid cuts because South Korea no longer receives any. U.S. officials say that withdrawal of the American troops is not even under consideration because of the military threat from North Korea.
Trade Pressure Unlikely
Washington could threaten to restrict South Korea's lucrative trade with the United States if the Seoul government does not reform or, conversely, could promise to avoid trade measures if Chun opens up to more democracy.