South Korea's only announced presidential candidate met with top American leaders in Washington this week, buffing up his image for the election scheduled later this year. Roh Tae Woo's brief talk with President Reagan was immediately denounced by some in Korea who claimed to see a dark plot involving an American endorsement of the ruling party's presidential nominee. In fact, as the White House was quick to point out, the same courtesies given Roh will be extended to any other Korean presidential candidate who might ask for them. Right now, though, there is no other announced candidate in what is shaping up as the country's first free presidential election since 1971.
What explains this curious fact is that the two leading opponents of current authoritarian rule have been unable to agree on which of them should run against Roh. Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam do agree that it would be folly if both sought the presidency, since that could only divide the opposition vote and virtually assure a Roh victory. But each man feels that he has the greater claim to be the unity candidate--Kim Dae Jung because in the last popular election 16 years ago he came within a few percentage points of winning, Kim Young Sam because he believes that this time around he would run the stronger race. The election is scheduled for sometime before Dec. 20, meaning that this impasse must be broken soon. But so far neither Kim has hinted that he is ready to subordinate his personal ambitions to the goal of a united opposition.
Roh, meanwhile, shows signs of emerging as a formidable candidate--surprising, perhaps, given his role as a longtime loyalist in President Chun Doo Hwan's widely unpopular regime. It was under Roh's recent leadership that the ruling party capitulated to the opposition's major political demands at the end of June. It is Roh who has continued to speak out in favor of democratic reforms and an end to authoritarianism. Koreans, by and large, are a conservative people who put a high value on order and stability. At the same time, as they have shown, they are eager to acquire the civil rights and greater political freedoms that have so long been denied them. By embracing the need for major change, Roh is believed to have considerably boosted his chances in a free presidential election.
It seems unlikely, though certainly not impossible, that the two Kims will fail to agree on which of them should step aside in favor of the presidential candidacy of the other. What makes such an accord desirable is not that an inability to do so would help Roh, who might prove to be fully as good a president as either of the two Kims, but that a three-man race would not be healthy for South Korea's nascent and fragile democracy. For if more than two candidates seek the presidency, the victor almost certainly would be chosen by only a minority of the electorate. That would not make him any less a legitimate choice, but inevitably there would be those who claimed that he was not a truly popular choice.
Korea's prospects for getting and keeping democracy seem tenuous enough without inviting the further complication of an electoral outcome that would become and remain a matter of dispute. Given the suspicions and hostilities likely to hover over Korean politics for some time, given concerns about either right-wing military intervention to frustrate the democratic will or radical agitation aimed at destabilizing democracy, the less ambiguous the result of this year's election the better off the country will be. That doesn't require a lopsided majority for the candidate of either the ruling party or the opposition. But ideally it should reflect a clear choice between clearly distinct political programs and personalities. If that's to happen, the two Kims will have to decide very soon which of them will abandon his own presidential ambitions and throw his support to the other.