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South Korea Writhes in Repression

June 14, 1987|Edward W. Poitras | Edward W. Poitras, professor of historical theology at the Methodist Theological Seminary in Seoul, has lived and worked in Korea since 1953

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — As South Korea lurches from one tense political confrontation to the next, it appears ever more likely that far from improving, the domestic situation will either continue to explode in violence or further deteriorate into even worse repression. The government has said that it will deal severely with all who "sabotage" preparations for next February's "peaceful transition of power." After increased levels of both protest and police response in the most recent clashes Wednesday, the situation has become far more strained.

In recent months, hopes for real political change, raised by the success of the opposition in 1985 National Assembly elections, have been dashed repeatedly by an intransigent authoritarian regime. Censorship, police power and political manipulation have been used in the regime's attempt to shut down opposition efforts at focusing attention on the need for a change of rule. On April 13, President Chun Doo Hwan announced the arbitrary termination of debate on constitutional revision, a move that generated widespread public resentment. The government's position has become even more insecure after recent revelations of financial scandal and the exposure of police brutality in the torture death of a university student. The economic miracle in Korea is also a potential threat to the government, for the slightest economic downturn would almost certainly result in widespread domestic disaffection.

In this context many have been calling for dialogue and compromise, but all attempts have failed and confrontation continues. To understand why compromise is not forthcoming, one must examine the underlying structure of this political standoff. The military has controlled politics in South Korea since Park Chong Hee led a coup in 1961. The Chun government came to power in a far more violent military takeover, and all attempts to cover up the bloody legacy of the Kwangju massacre in 1980 have failed to resolve the problem of the regime's legitimacy. This military-backed government has repeatedly shown no intention of surrendering power. In addition to the natural reluctance to preside over its own electoral defeat, the regime obviously also fears the retaliation which might follow.

Appeals for moderation, dialogue and compromise by the government deliberately avoid the fundamental issue of facing an open democratic election in which it could be voted out. Recent public-opinion polls have consistently found a substantial majority in favor of a system allowing for just such free elections. The opposition, for its part, does not intend to be drawn into a "dialogue" that evades this central issue, hence will not discuss concessions that would only allow government to wear a conciliatory disguise.

The closest parallel to the Korean political confrontation is the apartheid struggle in South Africa, where those who seek the one meaningful change--dismantling of the unjust system itself--are unwilling to cooperate in minor improvements, however desirable, that would only further entrench a minority regime. Therefore attempts by the United States and others to "moderate" either situation, however well-motivated, are likely to be subverted by both regimes for their own consolidation and political ends. By repeatedly calling for dialogue and compromise in Korea, an apparently reasonable position, the United States has put itself at the service of a dictatorial regime intending to extend its power through a "peaceful transition" that merely replaces one ex-general with another carbon copy. The heir apparent, Roh Tae Woo, has actively participated in the regime's repugnant destruction of human rights and the consequent undermining of true security. Roh was a key figure in the bloody Putsch of December, 1979, and the spring massacre of 1980. He participated in the strengthening of Draconian government controls, permitting preventive detention, the arbitrary extension of prison sentences and the application of police power to deter free assembly.

Recent attempts to portray Roh as a "moderate" are unconvincing in view of his record. He would take the reins of a system with control structures intact, not subject to National Assembly review. The United States now officially acknowledges that a democratic system based on genuine popular support in South Korea would be the best assurance of strength in the contest with the communist north. Recent U.S. appeals for improvements in human rights and democracy, however, are widely interpreted as attempts to protect America's image in case the Chun government, like the Philippines government of Ferdinand E. Marcos, invites its own collapse.

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