South Korea: don't expect a quick replay of the Philippines
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:Skip to next paragraph
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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.''
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.