Like the good general he once was, South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan is now moving swiftly to consolidate his recent gains on the political battlefield.
A record 95.5 percent of South Korean voters turned out on Oct. 23 to give Mr. Chun an overwhelming "yes" vote on his new constitution. This constitution not only paves the way for the former general to remain in office for seven more years, but also mandates him to abolish both Korea's present parliament and the country's political parties.
According to the terms of the referendum, legislative power will be transferred to a military-dominated legislative Council for National Security. This council will remain in power until a new parliament is sworn in after general elections in April or May of next year.
There is an uncanny resemblance between Mr. Chun and the last military man to seize power in South Korea -- the assassinated Park Chung Hee. The mere change from combat fatigues to coat and tie does not automatically produce a genuine civilian politician. But in both cases there was and is an obvious hankering for the legitimacy offered by civilian garb.
Park, after years spent molding Korea in his image, risked an election in 1972 and came unpleasantly close to losing.To prevent any repetition he chose a national referendum where the people were asked to vote less for personalities and more for an idea -- the present Yushin (revitalizing) Constitution, effectively perpetuating one-man rule. He reckoned that the built-in majority of conservative rural voters would readily accept arguments about national stability that urban liberals dismiss as simplistic and even cynical. But if President Park had written a text book on the subject, ex-General Chun could not be following it more closely.
It seems that, like his old mentor, Mr. Chun knows his Koreans. There were a few rumblings on Seoul university campuses last week and calls for a boycott of the referendum. But for the moment, antigovernment demonstrations are out of fashion, and these campus rumblings could not prevent Chun's sweeping victory.
Home Minister Suh Jung Hwa, who led a massive effort to turn out the vote, said the result indicated "the Korean people count stability more than anything else now." There is a lot to be said for the argument.
Some observers feel Chun gained from national reaction against the virtual insurrection in the southern part of the country last May which had to be put down by the Army. In fact, the rest of the country went quietly about its business, showing perhaps that Western-style democracy is not yet an overriding concern for many Koreans.
Having gathered all the power into his hands, President Chun has launched a Spartan regime of national self- discipline. Government control over the creaking machinery has been strengthened by a President determined to wield an oil can. Expense accounts and other forms of high living, bribery, and corruption are being rooted out. In the wave of moral fervor Seoul newspapers are reporting how leading businessmen are handing their personal fortunes over to the state because they no longer need it.
Companies in key sectors like automobiles, electronics, and heavy industry are having to amalgamate with or without their approval to eliminate wasteful competition.
One knowlegeable diplomatic observer commented: "Whether you like his methods or not, Chun is doing what many Koreans can probably accept as necessary. The referendum result is in part only the conservative mass going along with the latest symbol of authority. However, I still think there is an important element of approval."
Much now could depend on how Chun deals with the man who is potentially his most dangerous political opponent -- Kim Dae Jung. Kim is in prison under a death sentence for opposing former President Park. Court hearings on an appeal against his death sentence are scheduled to begin this Friday.