SEOUL — Democracy faces a showdown in South Korea over the coming weeks. In late December, the Korean voters will make the same historic choice that peoples from Argentina to the Philippines have recently taken: after years of repression they will elect a democratic president. I am one of the four candidates.
Since June, when Roh Tae Woo, the candidate of the present military government, announced his conversion under popular pressure to a democratic election, there has been hope in some circles in the United States that this is one military dictatorship that can put down its guns and keep power through the ballot box. This delusion has been encouraged by the candidacy of two opposition candidates. It is thought we will split the anti-government vote.
Not so. If the government can be forced by Korean and international public opinion to hold the free and fair elections that it has promised, it will lose. The legacy of years of extensive repression--killings, corruption, low wages for most and economic privilege for a very few--cannot be washed away by one gesture.
Believing that Gen. Roh can win saves the United States from the hard choices it should be preparing for over the coming weeks. In reality, you face a clash between democracy and authoritarianism as sharp as that in the Philippines last year. If the elections are free, the present government cannot reasonably expect to win and the United States must ready itself for a new era in South Korea. If the government candidate does win, it will be because the regime has, as in the past, exploited its control of the voting process and the Korean media to steal the election.
Why can't Roh win honestly, given the much promoted argument that because Kim Young Sam is also a candidate, the opposition vote will be split? Ironically, the candidacy of Kim Young Sam, my colleague in the opposition, increases the size of my lead. Today it is agreed by all political camps that the two areas of the country where I am strongest are my home region, the southwest, and in Seoul and surrounding cities. Together these areas hold more than half of the nation's voters.
At the same time, I think my reception in Pusan on Sunday, the heartland of Kim Young Sam's support, demonstrates that my constituency knows no regional boundaries. In 1971, despite massive fraud, I received 46% of the vote in the presidential election. My constituency is secure and expanding.
By contrast, Kim Young Sam and Roh will split the southeast, their home areas, between them and lose the central region of the country to Kim Jong Pil, the fourth candidate. As a former prime minister, Kim Jong Pil will also take votes nationally from Roh. So these three candidates are feeding off each other's votes, and strengthening my lead.
However, this article is not an appeal for America to line up behind the front-runner. The Korean government has banned opinion polls; it is peddling the misleading argument of a split opposition vote, and it is manipulating local news coverage to downgrade the challenge it faces. America needs to understand the political arithmetic I have outlined here so that it recognizes the foreign policy challenge it faces: a regime with only a few weeks to live and an apparent desperation in some quarters to hang on at all costs.
We want neutrality from all outsiders. In addition, we seek a clear commitment from the United States, our ally and provider of 40,000 troops for our defense, to the democratic process itself in South Korea. I decided to stand in this election as I felt the Korean military could not be allowed to veto the choice of the people. A strong civilian president with the confidence of all our people is in the best interests of our military as it is of our nation. I believe our military will recognize this.
Yet on all issues--from labor, to the military and regional differences--what is required amid the explosion of long-suppressed passions is the confidence of the people in free elections and the opportunity for the strong healing voice of democratic rule to be heard.
If, for some unforeseen reason, Kim Young Sam wins so much support that he emerges as the principal standard-bearer for the opposition, it goes without saying that I would step aside before the election and throw my support behind him. He would make a fine president.
But whoever wins, even if it is Gen. Roh, must be chosen by a fair and honest vote. The public and private statements coming out of Washington, contacts between your military and ours, international election observers and the foreign media, will all be critical guardians of our democratic freedom as we face a sophisticated campaign of vote and local press manipulation. We expect pre-election irregularities, and vote-cheating on election day, including the use of the absentee military vote and cheating in the count itself.
International pressure can provide a critical restraint on the Korean military as it braces itself to accept the new democracy. This is a watershed in our history and as our principal ally, the United States cannot wish away the significance of this election by hiding behind false hopes of a military victory at the polls. The United States must be unambivalent about its support for democracy rather than a particular candidate. And may the best candidate, whoever he is, win.