Until democracy takes root, leaders prefer 'strong man'

Strong leadership within a democratic framework is regarded by South Korea's rulers as the best formula for national stability at present.

In their long history, the Koreans have tried almost every form of government - imperial dynasties, foreign powers, weak prime ministers, and military strong-men. From all these experiences, they claim to be trying to develop a ''democratic'' system suited to Korean culture, tradition, and present political needs.

Grafting on pure Western-style democracy is not necessarily the answer, no matter what other (Western) governments may think, argues Kwon Jung Dal, powerful secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP), formed last year to help President Chun Doo Hwan carry out his political reform program.

''We imported Western democracy after the war. But it created many problems and bad side effects, and it led to many costly errors. That is why we now feel we have to develop a democratic system best suited to our present needs . . . and that means strong leadership.''

In answer to foreign critics who don't find Korea's political system particularly democratic -- especially with opponents of the regime in prison -- Mr. Dal uses the analogy of a Korean pine planted in Arlington National Cemetery.

''When I visited Washington recently, I discovered the tree was not growing properly,'' he said. ''Its pines and branches were developing awkwardly. The moisture, temperature, and soil weren't what the tree was used to.

''And that made me realize that democracy has to be developed according to the indigenous environment.''

Strong leadership -- ''which must mean a presidential system'' -- is needed, the DJP secretary-general insists, because of Korea's ''unhappy situation.'' Primarily, this means developing a strong sense of national identity, with economic and military strength, to ward off the threat of a new war with North Korea.

But he says the slogan must be: ''strong government, not totalitarianism.'' Koreans have plenty of experience in ''strong government'' -- like the 19-year iron rule of President Park, assassinated by one of his own men in 1979.

Mr. Dal is quick to differentiate between that period and the present one-year-old Fifth Republic of President Chun (who, like Park, was an Army general). President Park, he says, really ran a one-man show. His Democratic Republican Party (DRP) had very little say in running the country. The National Assembly was a mere rubber stamp body, when it operated at all.

Everyone involved with the present government insists this is no longer true.

The National Assembly is said to play a strong role; observers note that a number of government bills have been held up in deliberations for several months.

President Chun is said to consult very closely with his ruling party. He has appeared in the National Assembly, and his prime minister and other officials frequently brief the opposition Democratic Korea Party (DKP) and Korea National Party (KNP) on sensitive policy aspects.

The opposition parties play a highly meaningful role, DJP officials claim, pointing out that it was the KNP that initiated and won government acceptance of the abandonment of the longstanding curfew. Cynics doubt the claim, pointing out that the DJP - which won 152 of the 276 seats in last year's election -- will always dominate national life because of a stranglehold on political funds. The opposition parties are said to be constantly on the verge of bankruptcy.

Mr. Dal denies this strongly. The DJP had no cash when it started, but has since raised several million dollars through the support of wide sectors of the community, he says. At the same time the government has started a system of supplying political funds that helps ensure a viable opposition as well as meeting demands for ''clean politics.''

Apart from direct fund raising, government subsidies from the national budget are made available as necessary, based on the number of National Assembly seats. The same formula is used to calculate distribution of funds from voluntary contributions by the public.

Mr. Dal stresses that, for the first time, the foundations have been laid for a peaceful transfer of power. The late President Park is pictured as contributing to his own downfall by clinging to power too long. The turmoil that followed his death was inevitable.

The Fifth Republic's Constitution, however, stipulates a single seven-year term for the president, and the present occupant of the office has repeatedly pledged to conform to this requirement. (Park made similar pledges, but then altered the Constitution).

The desire for a new era of clean politics and national harmony is being used to justify continued restrictions on opponents of the present regime and politicians of the old.

On the first anniversary of his inauguration in March, President Chun amnestied 2,863 convicts. The life sentence of Kim Dae Jung, the former opposition presidential candidate who was convicted of plotting to overthrow the government, was reduced to 20 years (after an earlier death sentence was commuted). Jail terms of leaders of antigovernment riots in 1979 and 1980 were also shortened.

But at the same time, Prime Minister Chang Soon Yoo told the National Assembly it was too early to remove an eight-year ban on the activities of former politicians, who had to bear heavy responsibility for past problems like corruption and national disunity. The same arguments were used to justify continuation of certain laws, regarded abroad as repressive, passed last year to clamp down on dissent. Likewise, those involved in campus disturbance were excluded from the recent amnesty.

For all the talk of relaxation, therefore, there are still obvious limits. Typical was a government decision to permit the publication for the first time of communist political works of Karl Marx ''to enable the people to better understand the enemy.'' But a publisher who took the government at its word found his interpretation of policy too liberal. He is now in jail for publishing subversive literature.

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