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Slowly, slowly, authoritarian S. Korea seems to soften

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''There is partial discussion of the issues instead of having really no discussion at all,'' observes Korea scholar and former State Department official Gregory Henderson. But he cautions that in the overall picture, ''There are very few signs of liberalizing - and they are quite slow and slight.''

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Analysts say the real test still lies ahead as to whether or not these steps represent cracks in Chun's authoritarian armor. ''It's still a little early to judge whether or not this liberalizing movement is another wave in a continuing trend or if it marks a sort of milestone,'' says Donald Macdonald, research professor of Korea studies at Georgetown University.

The new harmony along the northern border, for instance, was recently strained Nov. 28 when a Soviet defector crossed from the North into the demilitarized zone, causing a shootout which led to the death of one South Korean and three North Korean soldiers. It was worst such incident since 1976. Although North Korea promptly postponed the second round of economic talks, slated for Dec. 5, the incident is not yet viewed by US officials as a major setback.

Also, it is conceivable that President Chun could yet be persuaded to beat a retreat on his more lenient policy of campus protests and arrests. The students have become increasingly bolder. And if, as expected, Kim Dae Jung is imprisoned on his return, it could add cause to the students' agenda and fuel more protests.

Although analysts say such protests are unlikely to pose any serious challenge to the government, a decision by President Chun to tighten controls could cost him political support at home and tarnish his image abroad. National Assembly elections, which his government predicts students may try to disrupt, are expected to be held in February. How well the ruling party fares then will set the stage for the presidential elections of 1988 when Chun has pledged to step down.

Many South Koreans suspect he may renege on that promise. They recall that President Park Chung Hee broke a similar promise and that Syngman Rhee, South Korea's first elected president, was overthrown in a bloody student revolution in 1960 after trying to rig elections. No president since the country's 1948 independence has left the post peacefully.

But US officials seem inclined to accept President Chun at his word. ''We hope he'll step down and we have no indication he won't,'' says one State Department official. Last year, on his visit to Seoul, President Reagan warmly endorsed the principles of democracy on several public occasions and praised the South Korean President for his ''farsighted decision'' to step down in 1988.

Yet Kim Dae Jung and a number of other opposition leaders have been sharply critical of the United States for not speaking out more forcefully against the Chun government's violations of human rights and democratic freedoms. Some of them argue that the sizable presence of US troops in the South has compromised Washington's willingness to take a stronger moral stand.

US officials concede that Chun has a long way to go to achieve any measure of real democracy, but reason that they can do most toward that end by ''quiet diplomacy.'' Says one State Department official: ''We think it's been more effective than other strategies.''

Yet some analysts insist radical changes in South Korea's government system may be necessary before democratic reforms go any further. They cite the widespread, unpublicized practice of indoctrinating numerous South Koreans in such Confucian values as obedience to authority. Most students, for instance, take a required course in ethics in which they are taught that no imported brand of democracy from the West adequately fits South Korea's traditions or needs.