WASHINGTON — With the South Korean election just days away, the United States is nervously watching events in Seoul, hoping that the kind of political turmoil that followed the 1986 ballot contest in the Philippines between Ferdinand E. Marcos and Corazon Aquino can be avoided.
The United States has tried to convey an air of detachment from the South Korean election to be held Wednesday, but U.S. officials make it clear that they are working hard to ensure that there will be no political crisis in South Korea during the election or after the returns come in.
Such a crisis, American diplomats and analysts say, could come in any one of three forms:
--A dispute over the validity or fairness of the balloting.
--The intervention of the South Korean military.
--The formation of a new government with so little popular support that it will have trouble running the country.
"The tough part comes after the elections," William Clark Jr., deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in an interview last week. "(South Korea) is a very fragmented body politic right now. It's going to be a tough 2 1/2 months" between Dec. 16 and the swearing-in of a new president Feb. 25.
The stakes for U.S. foreign policy are high. South Korea has 40,000 American troops stationed on its soil and is one of the most prosperous Asian trading partners. Seoul is to play host to next year's Summer Olympics, an event that could enhance South Korea's international status.
The election will also be one of the most important tests of the Reagan Administration's stated policy of promoting democracy.
"Democratic government and greater individual freedom now represent the wave of the future," Gaston J. Sigur, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in a speech last week. ". . . Americans have a profound stake in the cultivation of democracy around the world."
Over the last three years, the United States has taken steps to encourage unpopular rulers in the Philippines, Haiti and South Korea to yield power or open the way to democratic reforms. But that policy has produced a government of dangerous fragility under Aquino in the Philippines. More recently, an election in Haiti was canceled amid widespread violence.
South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan last spring selected a longtime aide, Roh Tae Woo, to succeed him without direct elections when Chun's term ends next year. That decision sparked nationwide protest demonstrations and street clashes.
Roh's Dramatic Proposals
At the end of June, with the sting of tear gas in the air, with the Olympic Games little more than a year away, and with U.S. diplomatic pressure including a Sigur visit to Seoul, Roh--whom Chun said he had authorized to make political decisions--announced a dramatic set of proposals for democracy, including direct election of the president. The proposals met virtually all of the opposition's demands.
Two days later, President Chun embraced the program outlined by Roh.
The White House quickly praised Roh's move, but U.S. officials remain worried about the tense political situation.
"In the Philippines and Korea, we (Americans) seem to have the idea that so long as we have a fair election, everything will come out all right," said Harry Harding, a specialist on Asian affairs for the Brookings Institution. "We have been so preoccupied with the problem of how to deal with the decaying, unpopular tyrant that we haven't worked out how to deal with an ineffective democrat."
For the last two months, American officials have been trying to avoid saying or doing anything that could suggest official support for any of the South Korean candidates. But the fact that President Reagan received Roh at the White House in September is viewed by many in South Korea as evidence that Roh has U.S. backing.
Pictured With Reagan
Roh's campaign handouts and placards give prominent display to his meeting with Reagan, and some of the literature notes that the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, James R. Lilley, called Roh a hero at a Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy this year.
Clark, the deputy assistant secretary of state, insisted that any other South Korean candidate who visited the White House would also have been received.
"I think we are being used in this election much less than I thought possible," Clark said.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is a longtime friend of opposition presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung and has for years supported him in human rights disputes with the Seoul government. But a spokesman for Kennedy said the senator is not endorsing Kim Dae Jung or any other candidate.
Aides to several other senators said they have been trying hard to avoid any appearance of favoring any of the South Korean candidates.
"We shouldn't interfere in any way," said an aide to a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Whoever's elected, we're for."
Example of Philippines