South Korea: don't expect a quick replay of the Philippines

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FERDINAND Marcos had barely fled Malacanang Palace before critics shifted their eyes northward to gauge President Chun Doo Hwan's grip on South Korea's Blue House. Press coverage and editorials since have had a field day contrasting the two situations, often assessing Mr. Chun's prospects in bleak terms. On the surface the similarities between the Philippines and South Korea are striking and may lead one to expect rapid change in Seoul. The Marcos regime was, and Chun's is, highly authoritarian. Political dissidents under each experienced repression. Both groups called up the United States, as the main foreign advocate of democracy in their lands, to back up its rhetoric with concrete measures. Large-scale and sometimes violent protest movements have strained the patience of each country's authoritarian elites. Religious leaders play a moralistic role in each society, calling for social justice and pluralism. US relations with each are constrained by Washington's desires to preserve the strategic status quo and important US bases. Against the background of these similarities which reverberate in Seoul, a number of characteristics seem to suggest that the fallen Marcos political ``domino'' may yet topple the Chun government:

Despite years of American disavowals of meaningful ability to dislodge the long-entrenched Mr. Marcos for fear that the resulting disruption could jeopardize US access to the Clark and Subic bases, and despite US reluctance to be seen greasing the skids for Marcos for fear of drawing parallels with the Shah of Iran and Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, when a crisis was imminent the US clearly facilitated a peaceful transition to Mrs. Aquino. These actions, coming in the wake of ``Baby Doc'' Duvalier's removal from Haiti, graphically displayed US interventions in a very positive light.

Washington's deft performances were not lost on South Korean opponents of Chun, who long have sought similar US influence on behalf of Korean democracy. Consequently, Cory Aquino's US-aided successes simultaneously gave major South Korean opposition politicians hope that they could accomplish something similar and threw down a gauntlet to democratic student, labor, and clerical activists to develop a Korean version of ``people's power.'' Seoul's Stephen Cardinal Kim said events in Manila had taught South Koreans ``a lesson.''

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The Chun government also seems to have perceived one obvious lesson from Marcos's experience. The adverse impact of the Shah's and Somoza's downfalls under Jimmy Carter had been more than overcome by the Reagan administration's reassurances. But such reassurances of continued steadfast support inevitably take on a different connotation when they resound with echoes of what Marcos had heard and relied upon.

Unless one examines the dissimilarities, one could easily be led to a premature fatalism about Seoul's prospects. One of the key dissimilarities that is likely to prevent rapid movement toward more-pluralistic democracy in South Korea is the relative freedom that had been enjoyed in the Philippines under Marcos. While Marcos's often ruthless and violent regime was more regularly labeled a dictatorship than Chun's is, the Marcos dictatorship allowed a great deal of latitude in public criticism. The contrast with South Korea is marked. Seoul runs a much tighter operation, usually permitting little overt criticism. Ironically, one key reason that Seoul's branch of authoritarianism is unlikely to be overturned `a la Aquino is that it is more rigorous. There is a ``Catch-22'' at work in South Korean aspirations for democracy, namely the requirement that its advocates play by rigidly enforced rules that preclude the possibility of success.

A second key obstacle to a replay of ``people's power'' in South Korea's quest for democracy is the obvious difficulties in experimenting with social revolution while literally under the gun of an armed opponent brandishing its own version of ``people's power.'' North Korea's ``Democratic People's Republic'' (a gross misnomer on each count) wields an ominous form of power that threatens the existence of South Korea daily in ways that make the New People's Army in the Philippines pale into insignificance. Undoubtedly Mr. Chun -- like President Park before him -- will try to use this threat to quash any moves that could provide opportunities for North Korean meddling or aggression. Clearly there is some element of ``crying wolf'' in invoking such a pretext, but -- unfortunately for South Korean democratic activists -- the wolf is real and is out there waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Another and decisive difference that is likely to prevent a replay of Manila's reforms in Seoul is the very different role of the Korean military. It is almost impossible to imagine this powerful elite standing still while domestic events unravel as they did in Manila. Neither President Chun nor any other ``civilian'' leader (though many, including Chun, are ex-military) can have much confidence that their counterparts in uniform would allow the government to cut a deal of any sort that would reduce the military's overwhelming influence. Consequently, the prospects of a Manila-like transition would almost certainly precipitate another coup. Since neither Chun, his opponents, nor the US wants a repeat of such an event in Seoul, there is ample incentive to tread carefully. Unfortunately, there are also ample idealistic zealots in South Korea who might be reckless in the pursuit of democracy.

No one's crystal ball is clear enoguh to foretell what might occur in South Korea's always volatile political arena. Rapid change is possible, but it is very unlikely to be as comparatively smooth and bloodless as events in Manila proved to be. Because of that, no one should expect that political experiment. The societal ingredients this time around are simply too unstable to take such chances. Had things gone badly in Manila, there would have been time to recoup one's losses in the Philippines. Such political and strategic leeway simply does not exist in South Korea. Consequently, despite all the promising parallels between these two cases and the consequent hopes that have been raised, there is little reason to believe that the shock waves still emanating from the crashing fall of Marcos's ``domino'' will do major damage to its South Korean counterpart.

Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif. He has just returned from visits to South Korea and the Philippines.

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