South Korea -- rights and progress

THE meeting between President Reagan and South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan can be welcomed as another opportunity for the American side to quietly stress the advantages to South Korea of further moves toward political liberalization. At the same time, the visit provides an occasion for reaffirming the important diplomatic, military, and commercial ties that have grown between the two nations over the past 35 years. President Chun's visit, it is significant to note, might have been far less cordial, if not impossible, because of domestic concerns within the United States, had Seoul not gone ahead with its earlier moves toward liberalization. Such steps include what is considered a remarkably open election for the National Assembly this past February, as well as the lifting of a political ban on 13 opposition leaders in early March. Further, opposition leader Kim Dae Jung has been allowed somewhat freer access to other politicians and journalists.

The Chun government, however, would be mistaken in assuming that Americans in general, and many other Westerners, believe these actions are anything more than steps along the way toward satisfying the South Korean public's demand for greater political participation and civil liberties. A resurgence of antigovernment protests on university campuses in South Korea is but one sign of public sentiment.

Granted, the United States has to walk a tight line in its dealings with Seoul: The US would be remiss to appear patronizing about Seoul's long march toward a more democratic government. Compared with the authoritarian regime in North Korea, South Korea is a relatively pluralistic society. Still, the United States -- precisely because it does care about the well-being of South Korea, as evidenced by its continuing military presence at considerable expense and commitment of manpower -- owes it to Seoul to show candor about the need for continued progress on human rights.

There are far more advantages than disadvantages for Seoul in moving toward greater civil rights. This should be clear. South Korea need only look across the Sea of Japan -- at the performance of its economic giant neighbor -- to perceive the benefits of such liberalization. Without oversimplifying comparisons of the two societies, it is fair to note that Japan has changed enormously politically and socially during the past five decades. Yet, moving toward greater political and social liberty -- in contrast to Japan's authoritarian days of the 1930s -- has surely contributed to Japan's rise to commercial and economic eminence.

South Korea is not Japan. It is, however, showing signs of an inventive and productive economic capacity, as is the case with Japan.

Greater evidence of political freedom in South Korea can only lead to deeper commitment to the long-range well-being of the government. Such a commitment in turn can foster creativity in all areas of South Korean life, including commerce.

A final point seems in order in such a dialogue between the two nations: Americans need to remember that they too have much to learn from South Korea and South Koreans. Many South Koreans, as well as other people from Asia, now reside in the United States. They bring with them many exemplary qualities: a dedication to hard work, resourcefulness, commitment to family, and deep appreciation of scholarship and learning. If that sense of shared partnership and appreciation of each other's better qualities is maintained between the two nations and two peoples, there need be no occasion for further misunderstandings between the United States and South Korea. ------30{et

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