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From Economic to Political Miracle: South Korea on the Brink of Democracy

November 15, 1987|Keyes Beech | Keyes Beech won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Korea in 1951.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Splashes of red, yellow and gold brighten South Korea's somber, furrowed hills. Red peppers lie drying in the noonday sun on straw mats in front of tile-roofed farmhouses on back roads. The rice harvest is in, leaving the fields covered with stubble.

Restaurants are crowded with noisy, laughing people. And if for a moment you wondered where you were, the waitress' garlic-loaded breath is a sharp reminder of being in the Land of the Morning Calm and, quite often during the past year, Afternoon Demonstration. Koreans are among the world's greatest garlic-eaters and demonstrators.

Autumn was always the best of seasons here and this one seems more mellow and full of promise than others to an American visitor who has know this ancient land in war and peace, better or worse, for 40 years--and always wished it well.

There were times when I doubted whether this remote peninsula in northeast Asia was worth the more than 33,000 American lives lost in the Korean war (1950-53). The doubts surfaced again in later years when I saw American guns in the hands of Korean policemen turned on Korean students.

Euphoria has always had a short life span in Korea, a violent, often brutal land with a tragic history. But even the most dogged pessimist might be forgiven a little cautious optimism at the prospects ahead. South Korea's economic success story, although overshadowed by its neighbor, Japan, is now well known. Probably no country has come so far, so fast with so little.

Having wrought an "economic miracle" within a single generation, South Korea is now putting together a "political miracle." After a quarter-century of authoritarian military rule, the country is poised on the brink of democracy.

Voters have already overwhelmingly approved a brand-new constitution. In mid-December they will elect a new president, the first to be chosen by direct vote in 16 years. In February, President Chun Doo Hwan will step down to make way for his successor.

And next fall Seoul will play host to the 1988 Olympics, a milestone that has captured the pride and imagination of all Koreans. This, in their eyes, will be the occasion to mark Korea's arrival on the international stage as a newly industrialized and democratic state.

But they are not quite there yet, and given the Korean propensity to settle political disputes with bullets, there are some concerns. In four turbulent decades, Korea has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power.

Yet the situation is much more favorable now. The literate, informed and politically aware Koreans feel their time has come. Even among government bureaucrats who have a great deal to lose, including their jobs, one senses a feeling that democratic government is not only desirable but inevitable.

It was Korean students, traditionally the conscience of the nation, who hit the streets and jarred things loose last spring after President Chun, a former general, reneged on a promise to deliver democratic reforms, including direct presidential elections.

But the government capitulated only after it became clear that the student protest had the support of Korea's emergent middle class. In a dramatic move that stunned nearly everybody, Roh Tae Woo, head of the ruling party and heir apparent to Chun, yielded to all opposition demands including the freeing of political prisoners and restoration of freedom of the press. Three days later Chun concurred.

The more radical students didn't stay stunned for long. Contending that Roh is merely a clone of Chun, they are demanding that he and the entire existing government be rejected.

A noisy presidential campaign is under full steam with four candidates in the field. Instead of pressing its advantage, the opposition Reunification Democratic Party has again yielded to its suicidal instincts and split, as so often before, between its two rival leaders: Kim Young Sam, 59, is a conventional but capable politician cast in the classic opposition mold; Kim Dae Jung, 63, is an ardent Catholic who seems to feel that he has a divine mission to lead his country.

Given that split plus the long shot candidacy of yet another Kim--Kim Jong Pil, a conservative former prime minister--Roh Tae Woo looks to be an easy winner since he has unlimited funds and the weight of the government machine behind him. Indeed that is the way it has worked in past elections. But there is no guarantee this time.

Despite his forthright espousal of democratic reforms, Roh Tae Woo carries some negative baggage because of his military background. Both Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung command respectable followings. Kim Dae Jung has the more dramatic past: He has been kidnaped, beaten, tortured, imprisoned and sentenced to death by military regimes.

Perhaps because of his rival's credentials as victim, Kim Young Sam has claimed center ground, portraying himself as a safe middle-of-the-roader with no sharp edges who can unite all factions.

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