SEOUL, South Korea — In his first outdoor rally of the presidential campaign, Roh Tae Woo faced head-on Saturday the military issue that stalks his candidacy.
The ruling party nominee told a large throng of supporters, many of them veterans wearing service medals: "If military rule is to be put to an end, the nation should select as president a man who is well aware of the military and capable of forestalling national disasters."
As a former general handpicked for the presidency by President Chun Doo Hwan, another former general who took power in a military coup, Roh has been labeled by the opposition as a Chun clone. A Roh presidency, opposition candidates say, would be a continuation of the quarter century of military-dominated rule here.
The 54-year-old Roh, who retired from the army six years ago, makes no apologies for his military record. But his campaign has stressed his identification with the beginning of democratic reforms here, a process started June 29 when Roh, after nearly three weeks of anti-government street demonstrations, suddenly endorsed the opposition demand for direct presidential elections.
At his rally in a local stadium, Roh rejected opposition efforts to paint him a potential dictator.
"Is there any nation in the world with a military dictatorship where presidents are chosen in fair, free and direct elections?" he asked.
Security was heavy around the stadium. Roh's campaign appearances were disrupted three times last week by protesters. In Taegu, his hometown, firebombs were thrown at his motorcade.
Saturday, in Seoul and several other cities, demonstrators staged rallies against the Chun government and Roh's candidacy, sponsored by the anti-government National Coalition for a Democratic Constitution. Clashes between the demonstrators and riot police were reported in Taegu, Chonju, Cheju and Chunchon. On Friday night, police raided university campuses and dissident offices in many cities in a bid to defuse the planned rallies, seizing firebombs, posters and anti-government literature.
Demonstrators at the Seoul rally appeared to be outnumbered by police, many of them plainclothesmen. There were no major problems.
The sponsoring coalition called the nationwide rallies in support of a proposed interim, nonpartisan Cabinet, which opposition politicians say would help ensure a fair election. Chun has rejected the proposal.
But speakers here, supported by student and workers' groups, concentrated instead on direct attacks on Chun and Roh and on human rights abuses under the Chun government, including the suppression of the Kwangju uprising in 1980.
"How can a murderer become a commoner?" demanded a student radical, assailing Roh's claim to be a common citizen. "Execute the murderer," the speaker shouted.
In his rally speech, Roh tackled that subject too, apologizing for celebrated cases involving the torture death of a university student and the jail-house sexual assault on a young women, both at the hands of police. "I am resolved that their pain and sacrifice will promote human rights," Roh declared.
The two main opposition candidates were also on the stump Saturday, their first outdoor rally since Kim Dae Jung bolted the major opposition Reunification Democratic Party last week to set up his own party.
At Inchon, the port city of Seoul, Kim Young Sam, 59, the president of the Reunification Democrats, blasted both Roh and his opposition rival. "The secession of Kim Dae Jung, once my closest ally, from the RDP is a tragedy that can by no means be justified," he said, asserting that he himself is "the only alternative to military rule."
All three front-runners called for an end to regional politics in the presidential campaign. A test will come today when Kim Dae Jung holds a rally in Pusan, his opposition rival's hometown.
Later, Kim Young Sam is scheduled to campaign in the Cholla region, home turf of the elder Kim.