Barriers To Democracy Cause Violence In Seoul

Posted: June 12, 1987

Like Nero, South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan was fiddling when his capital, Seoul, began to burn. Mr. Chun was celebrating the choice of his hand-picked successor, Roh Tae Woo, at a gala reception when the most violent demonstrations in years broke out across downtown Seoul.

The demonstrators, mainly students, were protesting the anointing of Mr. Roh, as well as the torture death of a student by police last January. Mr. Roh has become a symbol of Korean democracy stillborn. The authoritarian Mr. Chun, who seized power violently in a military coup in 1980, has pledged to step down voluntarily next February after seven years in power. But so far he seems committed to passing on power to another military-backed candidate and remains unwilling to contemplate a democratic election in which the political opposition would have an even chance.

In April President Chun cut off dialogue with the opposition on political reforms. That ended hopes of revising the current constitution, whose election provisions virtually guarantee a government party victory. Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung was put under tight house arrest; his party declared a boycott of elections scheduled late this year.

South Korea has become a study in the inability of an authoritarian regime to recognize that the time has come to move toward democratic rule. Korea has a booming economy and a highly literate population. The middle class, intellectuals, university students, Protestant and Catholic clergy (in a country where 25 percent of the population is Christian) and even some Buddhist monks are increasingly alienated from the Chun regime. Yet President Chun, and his military, calling up the specter of communist North Korea, have resisted political change.

In part the problem is one of a clash of personalities. Kim Dae Jung, a nationally popular figure capable of spell-binding rhetoric, is intensely distrusted by the army leadership because of old political and regional rivalries. In part, the opposition itself has contributed to its plight by internal squabbles.

But at bottom, Korea's problem stems from the myopia of a clique of military men who cannot understand that democracy is the best guarantee that the south will remain stable if confronted with North Korean provocations, especially around the time of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Nor do they see that Korea's economy, nurtured so successfully under authoritarian controls, is mature enough to grow under democratic rule.

The vehemence and violence of the protesters should make President Chun rethink his scheme of ramming through his choice of successor. The United States, meanwhile, allied by history and security concerns to Seoul, must do more than issue mealy-mouthed condemnations of both police and demonstrators. Washington must communicate both privately and publicly its support for genuine democratic elections. It must also clearly warn President Chun that he will endanger the U.S.-Korean relationship if he reimposes martial law.

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