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REPUBLIC OF KOREA; An economic spring; The future is tied to stability and exports

By Takashi OkaStaff correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 1981


The long, severe Korean winter is over. As buds swell and sap flows in trees preparing their greening, government officials, bankers, industrialists, and the working Korean public earnestly hope that spring will bring a progressive recovery from a bleak and depressing 1980.

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President chun Doo Hwan's state Jan. 29 to Feb. 6 was the first major event of the year, as important for its symbolism as for its substance. First and foremost, the visit signified that Korean-American relations were back to normal after a long period of strain. That in turn gave reassurance of south Korea's security against the ever-present threat from communist North Korea.

Along with the improved domestic atmosphere shown by the reduced sentence granted to opposition leader Kim Dae Jung (his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment) and a relatively smooth transition from martial law to the Fifth Republic, the state visit strengthened President Chun's own position and thereby helped promote the image of restored political stability.

Not that Seoul ever looked abnormal, except for a few days last april when the smell of tear gas hung heavy on the air, or when full martial law was declared May 17 and armed guards took up positions at the entrances to banks and news organizations.

The city still bustle with energy. A new bridge and highway links downtown Seoul to the airport in 20 minutes. Subway construction goes on space. Gleaming skyscrapers increasingly crowd out the picturesque pointed-roof courtyards and the maze of alleys in which much of the city's life still goes on.

At the same time, there seems to be an increase in the number of beggars and of disconsolate-looking men with sturdy wooden A-frames on their backs -- porters looking for loads to carry, perhaps pushed out of factory jobs by the current recession. Unemployment stands at 5 percent of the working population of more than 15 million. This year, the government says, it may go down slightly, to 4.9 percent.

Despite the Chun government's purge of allegedly corrupt officials and politicians and its frowning on evidence of conspicuous consumption, the affluent society is still very much in evidence in places like the Lotte hotel's 37th-floor restaurant.

Once Korean businessmen used such restaurants to entertain their foreign guests.They still do, but on almost any weekday the Korean clientele engulfs the occasional foreigner. And on Sundays Koreans come with their families, replenishing their plates from buffet tables groaning with delicacies from smoked salmon and raw oysters to roast beef and Chicken Oreintale.

And the restaurants down in the alleys where one can enjoy bulgogi (grilled beef) or seafood pancakes or any of a variety of exotic foods for a fraction of the cost of the Lotte are similarly crowded with office workers relaxing with their friends before having the crowded bus ride home.

So the economic picture is mixed. For every story of a business failure or of a ricebowl-winner forced out onto the street there is a matching story of grandiose plans for 1981. The restoration of political stability, however, is a very important ingredient in the renewed business confidence being shown this year.

No less important, in terms of the export orders, foreign loans, and investment that South Korean needs, is the image of a government with a coherent economic plan. Here too, after a period of confusion in the summer and autumn of last year, especially over plans to reorganize heavy industry and to force companies to divest themselves of unutilized real estate acquisitions, the Chun government seems to have got its act together.