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Analysis : U.S. Reportedly Had Little Influence in South Korean Policy Turnabout

July 03, 1987|SAM JAMESON | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — Seven years ago, Lt. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan took power in a coup carried out over U.S. objections. This week, President Chun Doo Hwan embraced everything the United States has been advocating and proclaimed the beginning of an era of democracy in South Korea.

American policy-makers rejoiced at the turnabout but took no credit for it.

At first, there were indications that American influence might have been a factor. Over the past few weeks, as public disturbances mounted across South Korea, there was an accompanying crescendo of U.S. diplomatic activity.

And when Chun declared Wednesday after 18 days of violence in the streets that democracy must function through "dialogue and compromise," he used the same words Washington had been using. He said South Korea's political development had been out of step with the level of its economic development, and this too was something the United States had been saying.

But none of this had much bearing on the outcome.

All the signs point to two factors as decisive--the students of South Korea and the Olympic Games scheduled to take place here next year.

Public Applauded Students

South Korea's students, who received no sign of public support when they took to the streets as Chun moved to seize power in 1980, had it this time. They were applauded from the sidewalks by Koreans who feared that they were about to be deprived once again of a voice in selecting a national leader. The last time they had such a choice was in 1971.

But most of all there was the matter of the 1988 Olympic Games, which could give this nation its finest moment in the world spotlight.

Chun and Roh Tae Woo, chairman of the ruling party, joined South Korean and foreign analysts in citing the Olympics as an important reason for their overnight change of heart. To Roh, loss of the Games would have brought national humiliation to a nation that looks on "saving face" as vital.

Just how little the United States influenced the three-week revolution was underscored by a U.S. diplomat who said two days after it began, "We do not expect any breakthroughs."

"Nor are we hopeless," he added. "Nor are we responsible for what happens. We grasp at straws."

A Bitter Failure

Indeed, U.S. diplomats at the highest level here saw their role as essentially that of sideline cheerleaders. They had been warned by former Ambassador William Gleysteen that there was little they could do. Gleysteen had experienced bitter failure in his effort to encourage South Korea to choose democracy after President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in 1979.

Chun carried out his coup in May the next year, and a dejected Gleysteen said, "It was so, so wrong."

U.S. diplomats were informed in advance of what Chun planned to say in his speech Wednesday, but there is no sign that they had any inkling of the bombshell Roh exploded Monday, when he accepted all of the opposition's demands.

Indeed, the American reading of the Chun government on the eve of the announcement, like everyone else's, pointed in the opposite direction.

A Western diplomat, insisting on anonymity, said then: "They are not going to leave the process (of selecting a leader) absolutely to the citizenry. There's going to be some role in taking the results of what the citizens do and making that conform to the reality of maintaining power. . . . They have no commitment to the democratic process and feel that any concessions would be seen as a sign of weakness which the opposition would take advantage of to be disruptive and force the government into a repressive reaction."

But on Wednesday, Chun promised a free, open, direct presidential election, which is expected to take place before the end of the year, and it now appears that the opposition has nothing left to seize on.

Subterfuge Still Possible

Clearly there is still a possibility of subterfuge from a government whose commitment to democratic ideals is only a few days old. But only one word in Chun's speech suggests such a possibility. That word is if, and he used it to qualify his acceptance of a direct election to choose his successor--"if (the constitution) is expeditiously revised and enacted following agreement between the government party and the opposition."

Such an agreement is expected, now that Chun has accepted the opposition's demand for a direct presidential election.

U.S. diplomats here detected in mid-June what they perceived to be growing recognition in the ruling party that Chun had made mistakes. His decree of April 13, ordering an end to talks on revising the constitution until after the Olympic Games, topped the list. But no one had any hint that Roh would embrace democracy completely, as he did Monday.

On the contrary, one Western diplomat said that Chun and his group were firmly committed to a Confucius-like view that ordinary Koreans cannot be trusted with a role in the decision-making process.

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