Slowly, slowly, authoritarian S. Korea seems to soften
Ever so slightly, analysts here say, South Korea's image both at home and abroad has been improving. Reasons include strong, steady pressure to democratize the nation from the government's political opposition (and, on a much more subdued level, from the United States); coming National Assembly elections; and Seoul's desire to serve as host of a well-attended 1988 Summer Olympic Games.Skip to next paragraph
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Although each is ever suspicious of the other's motives, South Korea and North Korea, after a long lapse, have resumed bilateral talks on trade. They have also reopened Red Cross talks aimed at reuniting as many as 10 million family members divided by the Korean war.
Such increased contact with the North could help Seoul avert a rumored Soviet-bloc boycott of the 1988 Olympics. Although South Korea has no formal diplomatic ties with much of the communist world, recently it has been working particularly hard to improve its relations with China and the Soviet Union and insists all are welcome at the Olympics.
Former US Ambassador to South Korea William Gleysteen describes Seoul's new external policy as cautious but generally ''flexible and enlightened.''
Also, although many basic human freedoms are still firmly denied South Koreans by the authoritarian government of President Chun Doo Hwan, the former Army general has recently taken a number of small steps toward liberalization:
* Just a few days ago, Seoul lifted the political-activities ban on 84 more South Koreans, a move officially ''welcomed'' by the US. The most vocal and formidable political opponents of President Chun's regime, however, are among the 15 South Koreans still under a ban. Yet the number is considerably down from the 835 who were banned from voting, giving speeches, or running for office when Chun abolished all existing political parties in 1980.
* So far, Chun has allowed the formation of the Council for the Promotion of Democracy, a new coalition made up of representatives of three of the strongest former political parties and aimed at achieving democratic reforms through a cautious dialogue with the government.
One of the coalition's co-chairmen is Kim Dae Jung, the charismatic former presidential candidate who was allowed to come to the United States two years ago for medical treatment. Mr. Kim faces the almost certain prospect of serving 17 more years in prison on a sedition conviction when he returns to Korea early next year.
* Under a new law, South Korea's college students are allowed to demonstrate on campus, and the number of campus protests is sharply up. Some have also chosen to test the limits of the government's tolerance for illegality by demonstrating off campus.
In separate instances recently, several hundred students stormed the headquarters of not only the ruling Democratic Justice Party, but also the Democratic Korea Party, the chief opposition group among the new, legal political parties organized with government help. Though some of the students arrested during the disturbances have demanded the right of a free trial, Chun's government has been more inclined lately to release them without pressing charges.
* Also, although press freedoms are still sharply curtailed, Seoul has allowed some coverage of student demonstrations for the first time. Some analysts here say that concession is largely aimed at isolating radical students from others on campus. The press reports consistently portray demonstrators as radicals bent on riots and overthrow of the government.