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Roh Can't Wait Until '88 to Fulfill the Promises

December 20, 1987|CHOI SUNG-IL | Choi Sung-il is the executive director of the Korean Institute for Human Rights in Arlington, Va.

With sheer drive and diligence, a majority of South Koreans have attained freedom from poverty in less than 20 years. But freedom from repression has eluded all Koreans ever since liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945. The presidential election last week, the first since 1971, was their chance to regain democratic freedoms for which they have fought so hard for so long.

The election, however, proved to be more than a referendum on the military dictatorship. Economic progress during the 26-year-long military autocracy seems to have influenced many Koreans to view civilian democracy as too drastic a shift that may undermine stability and economic gains. This was the paradox of the election--yearning for democratic change without risking the status quo.

Roh Tae Woo, the government candidate handpicked by the unpopular incumbent Chun Doo Hwan, has seemingly won because he presented himself as the best answer to this dual quest for democratic reforms without upsetting the apple cart.

Unless Roh can effectively address a set of problems, however, legitimacy will be as elusive and illusory to him as they have been to Chun. The problem of legitimacy will be acute for Roh, as evidenced by the 64% of the vote for the opposition.

First, Roh will have to demonstrate both the political will and the ability to implement democratic reforms. Most Koreans have nagging doubts whether Roh is a truly reformed democrat because he is a principal architect of the Chun military dictatorship and a key figure in the 1980 Kwangju massacre.

But Roh has far to go to make good on his promises of democratic reforms. For instance, his June 29 reform proposals, which was accepted by Chun, promised the unconditional release of all political prisoners. There are nearly 1,300, many of them having been imprisoned since June.

Moreover, there was an important omission in Roh's June 29 announcement. The military dictatorship in South Korea is buttressed by the National Security Planning Agency--its intelligence agency--and a military defense security command. Together, they strangulate democratic freedoms by flouting the rule of law and due process. Restoring democracy thus requires limiting their roles to genuine security matters and ensuring judicial autonomy. But Roh has not addressed these issues at all.

But if Roh can swiftly move to institute these measures, he may be able to establish his veracity and ability as a democrat in the view of the Korean public. This will also enable him to quiet the vanguards of the democratic movement--students and religious groups, who otherwise will spearhead a spirited movement to bring him down.

The key issue here is whether Roh can wait until Chun steps down in February to initiate democratic reforms. Widespread allegations of election fraud, his military background and the failure to make good on his promises of June 29 have already stirred up the students and religious groups.

Although the democratic activists, as past events have proved, cannot by themselves generate sufficient pressure to force the government's hand, their constant provocations can elicit harsh government repression. Once a cycle of protest and repression is set in motion, the Roh regime's image will erode, and the middle class will, then, step forward as they did this past summer.

Roh, therefore, does not have the luxury of time on his hands. The urgency for democratic reforms is further magnified given that the democratic opposition will become a herd of sheep without a shepherd. The result is likely to be recrimination against Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, hitherto the patriarchs of the opposition, for their failure to unite. Roh will find the leaderless and fragmented opposition unpredictable and impossible to deal with.

For the Roh regime to get out of the gate, then, the president-elect will have to present a blueprint of democratic change--release of all prisoners of conscience and rectification of the roles of the security agencies and judiciary. This will help Roh distance himself from the highly unpopular Chun and establish him as a credible democrat. Failure or procrastination to move quickly in this regard will irreparably widen the schism between Roh and the democratic forces in Korea.

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