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Democracy, Regional Ties Key Issues in S. Korea Vote

November 16, 1987|SAM JAMESON and NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writers

SEOUL, South Korea — A presidential campaign, which already has inflamed passions in South Korea, gets under way officially today with only one certainty in sight.

In their first chance in 16 years to vote directly for their president, South Korea's 25.6 million voters will confirm what political analysts have been saying for the last seven years: President Chun Doo Hwan's ruling Democratic Justice Party does not enjoy the support of a majority of the people.

The next government most likely will not enjoy majority support, either, although it could if one of the two liberal opposition candidates bows out of the race at the last minute.

With three strong candidates and a fourth significant aspirant in the race, the winner is expected to poll less than 40% of the vote. One analysis foresaw the possibility of a candidate winning with as little as 28% support.

Whoever wins, the election promises to set South Korea on the road to democracy after a history of military-installed governments, which since 1972 have ruled with authoritarian powers.

Even Chun's handpicked ruling party nominee, Roh Tae Woo, 55, has pledged to end authoritarian rule, wipe out "military coloring" in government and transform South Korea into a democracy. And whatever doubts may exist about the ex-general's promises, nationwide street protests in June--which forced him to make the pledge--underscored the fact that the South Korean public has reached the limit of its endurance of government by fiat.

An opposition victory, however, would make the commitment to democracy a sacred pledge, as its two standard-bearers describe the issue.

Were it not for the widespread desire of Koreans, especially a growing middle class, for political stability and economic progress, Roh--who collaborated in Chun's 1980 power grab--"would get buried in the election," said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.

Chun, whose constitutionally limited term ends next Feb. 24, "would probably get about 4%" of the vote if he himself ran in a free election, the diplomat added.

Roh may win anyway, thanks to a split in the opposition that Roh and Chun made possible last July by restoring the civil rights of Kim Dae Jung, 63, the opposition candidate in the last direct election, held in 1971. Kim, convicted on trumped-up charges of sedition in 1980, had been banned from politics because he remained under a suspended 20-year jail sentence.

He Jumps Into Trap

Kim, with eyes open, jumped into the ruling party's trap by splitting with his opposition ally, Kim Young Sam, 59, and establishing a second party dedicated to ending military rule. In an interview July 2, Kim acknowledged that the only reason the government had restored his civil rights was to promote a schism between himself and Kim Young Sam.

Although Kim insists that he can win a four-way race, analysts said his move transformed a virtually certain opposition victory into a neck-and-neck race.

It also guaranteed that whoever wins the Dec. 16 election will be a minority president.

Many analysts see the race shaping up as a two-way battle between Roh and Kim Young Sam, both of whom appeal to the middle class. Kim Dae Jung's support, while far stronger in terms of depth of commitment, remains limited to voters in the Cholla region, student activists, dissidents and the lower classes, they say.

But if Kim Young Sam and Roh find themselves locked in a nearly even battle, Kim Dae Jung could slip in.

Analysts point to a small possibility that Kim Dae Jung might withdraw at the last moment, throwing his support to his opposition rival. In that case, said one member of the Korean Establishment, "Roh definitely would lose."

With huge ranks of voters still undecided, Korean and foreign analysts alike say the result will be determined by developments in the last few weeks of the campaign.

A "bandwagon phenomenon" could develop, pulling in a large number of presently uncommitted voters and swaying others to give the winner a plurality as high as 40% to 41%.

Whoever wins, however, "will have no mandate," another Western diplomat said.

Chance of Military Coup

Instability, with the ever-present possibility of another military coup, remains a possibility. But, as one Cabinet official put it, political turmoil since June has already given the military "four or five chances" to intervene and it "did not do it, even in the face of provocation."

Registration of candidates is to begin today and continue through Saturday. The final list is expected to include Roh and the two Kims as the main contenders, with Kim Jong Pil, 61, a strongman of the 1961-79 era of the late President Park Chung Hee, a prominent fourth on the totem pole.

The campaign, already marred by violence, promises to deepen emotions and splits within Korean society. More than 80%--some foresee as high a turnout as 85%--of the voters are expected to cast ballots.

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