Manila's message for Seoul

THE irrepressible force of democracy -- as events of the past few weeks in the Philippines and Haiti have illustrated -- carries its own momentum. It would be tragic if that lesson were lost on the leaders of another key ally of the United States, South Korea. In recent weeks, the South Korean government has intensified a crackdown on political dissidents.

Fortunately, there are indications that the message of Haiti and the Philippines may now be coming through in Seoul. In the past few days the ruling government of President Chun Doo Hwan has eased back from its earlier tough stance on dissidents. The government has reportedly opened talks with opposition leaders regarding the latters' petition drive for a constitutional amendment to change the nation's presidential election process.

In many respects, South Korea differs from the Philippines. Economically, South Korea is one of the more advanced industrial nations of East Asia. Seoul likes to stress its growing economic prowess now that a vast range of South Korean electronic and other consumer goods, including cars, are arriving on the docks of developed nations. And South Korea, more like Japan than the Philippines, has a large middle class that is found throughout the Korean Peninsula.

Yet to what extent is South Korea's middle class sharing in the nation's new wealth, as well as helping to shape the nation's political-economic agenda?

Historially, there is a direct link between the growing industrialization of a nation and rising demands for greater political liberalization. A nation can choose to accommodate both converging trends -- as Britain and the United States and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, did during the last century and the early part of this -- or resist such a convergence and face growing civil unrest, as is now occurring within some third-world nations.

In South Korea, the momentary outward test of will between dissidents and government involves the 1988 presidential election process. The election, as of now, will be based on an indirect electoral-college vote, as provided for in a Constitution imposed on South Korea by the Chun government in 1980.

That same Constitution provides for the right of petition. It is to be hoped that the Chun regime and the dissidents can work out a compromise on the election issue. Millions of South Koreans apparently favor such a change. For Seoul not to recognize the right of petition and the emerging call for political reform in light of the headlines out of Port-au-Prince and Manila would seem shortsighted for a nation attempting to persuade Western consumers that it shares Western standards of 20th-century excellence.

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