Kwangju, South Korea — The South Korean political opposition has suddenly sprung to life again. After a year marked by frustrating defeats and internal divisions, it is now riding a powerful groundswell of support for democratic reform. This new vigor is the result of a fresh appeal to the roots of its strength: ordinary South Koreans.
The latest display of their support came Sunday in the city of Kwangju, where more than 50,000 people showed up at a mass rally for constitutional reform, according to independent observers. (The government maintains that the figure was much lower, while rally organizers put the turnout at more than 100,000.)
In the space of little more than a month, the campaign for democratic reform of the Constitution has galvanized the opposition, while nearly immobilizing the government's ability to thwart the movement.
The campaign has taken the form of a petition drive calling for constitutional revision. The opposition wants to scrap the system of voting for president through a 5,000-man electoral college, which the opposition says can be manipulated by the government. Instead, the opposition wants to hold a new, direct presidential election by the fall of 1987.
The drive has turned into a unifying force for all the disparate elements of the opposition.
``It is true that we have our political differences,'' says Hong Nam Soon, an elderly lawyer in Kwangju, who has become a grandfather figure for the movement. ``But we can all agree on the signature campaign.''
One political group after another, from the Union of Catholic Farmers to student federations, has expressed support, and they are beginning to form regional and national coalitions.
The Roman Catholic Church now supports the movement, as do influential Protestant organizations, including the National Council of Churches.
Last week, 28 professors from Korea University issued a statement supporting constitutional reform and calling for political freedom. The significance of this development is hard to underestimate, given what happened the last time professors acted collectively against the government, 26 years ago.
``It is an epochmaking event,'' dissident leader Kim Young Sam said Sunday. ``It is the same as the professors' statement at the end of the First Republic against the Syngman Rhee dictatorship which finally deposed the regime.'' (Mr. Rhee, who had dominated South Korean politics since the country's establishment in 1948, was forced to resign May 3, 1960.)
Sunday's rally in Kwangju was a festive affair. In a deeply symbolic act, the huge crowd shoved a line of uniformed police back across a large downtown plaza popularly known as ``democracy square.''
Rallies were held on the same spot in May 1980, when the city rose in a week-long insurrection after martial law was declared. Police killed several hundred protesters during the 1980 rebellion.
Sunday's rally represented a remarkable cross section of the population. Besides the politicians, students, workers, ministers, and merchants, old farmers in straw boaters and silk pantaloons were bused in from the countryside with their wives. One man led his pregnant wife through the crowd, and children played throughout the rally.
The peacefulness of the day was marred only after most of the crowd dispersed and a remnant of students decided to pick a fight with police. Some 70 students were reportedly arrested.
The opposition's fortunes had reached a nadir this past January. After a strong showing in the February 1985 National Assembly elections, it had tried to pursue democratic reforms in the National Assembly but found its efforts frustrated by the ruling party's unwillingness to agree on meaningful compromise.
Twelve National Assembly members of the main opposition party, the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP), defected from the party late last December, angry at the opposition's confrontational tactics and at the control over party affairs exercised by the two leading dissidents, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam -- neither of whom had joined the party. Kim Dae Jung was barred by the terms of a suspended sentence for sedition, while Kim Young Sam resisted joining in a show of solidarity.
On Jan. 9, NKDP assemblymen were indicted in connection with a brawl on the National Assembly floor the month before. If convicted, they could lose their seats -- which would trim the NKDP's voting strength to a dangerous low.
To bolster the party's flagging strength, Kim Dae Jung finally agreed to support Kim Young Sam's entry into the party, and the latter has helped turned the signature campaign into a stunning success.
The voices of assemblymen who wish to move more slowly and stress the politics of the Assembly have now been silenced by the mass outpouring of support for the petition drive.
There was rarely any doubt that South Koreans supported democratic reform. The question was whether they could draw together to express that support. But doubts nonetheless persist over where the movement is headed, now that it has found its voice.
``I don't think the opposition has a strategy,'' says a diplomat who closely follows South Korean politics. There is a lack of institutional mechanisms, such as an election, by which change can take place.
Some opposition assemblymen also are skeptical.
``There is little room for the government to compromise,'' one such assemblymen says, and he fears that the most likely outcome will be another round of intense political repression and possibly martial law.
``The more powerful we become,'' he says, ``the greater is our political dilemma.'' The government need only call out the Army to bring everything to a halt.
But opposition leaders Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung are nonetheless optimistic.
``I'm deeply satisfied,'' Kim Young Sam said on the plane back to Seoul after Sunday's rally. ``We managed to bring so many people together, and there was no violence.'' (The student violence erupted after the politicians had left Kwangju.) Kim believes that if the campaign stays peaceful and moderate, then the government will have no excuse to call in the Army.
``If the campaign continues to succeed, they will have no choice but to compromise,'' Kim Young Sam said. ``Our goal is dialogue. We want to have a three-way meeting with Kim Dae Jung, Kim Young Sam, and the President, and this will lead to democracy.''
Many observers have criticized the opposition, saying that it has been more successful as a protest movement than in offering any real alternative to the government. It has little in the way of new policy proposals.
Doubts also persist about whether the opposition coalitions now being welded into place would ever hang together in the absence of a common enemy.
Others point out, however, that the signature campaign looks like a dry run for an election and that the organization being put into place could give the opposition a powerful advantage next time South Koreans go to the polls.
The people who came to Sunday's rally seemed undeterred by these nagging questions.
``There is a fervor for democracy,'' said a middle-aged woman leaving the rally. ``The will of the people is like a flood, and nothing can stop it.''