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South Korea: Could a coup still occur?

By Edward A. Olsen / June 30, 1987

THE let up in recent political unrest in South Korea - over this past weekend at least - does not preclude the possibility of another military coup. In the wake of President Chun Doo Hwan's aborting the existing processes of constitutional revision in April and naming his successor, Roh Tae Woo, in June, those in opposition to him have accelerated their efforts to oust Mr. Chun. South Korean politics today are marked by more than their usual quotient of confrontation. The newly formed breakaway main opposition party, the Democratic Reunification Party (DRP), is strident in its uncompromising demands for rapid democratic reforms that would enable a completely civilian administration to replace the latest of the military-supported regimes that have run South Korea since Park Chung Hee's 1961 coup. Kim Young Sam, the DRP's head, and Kim Dae Jung, Korea's most prominent advocate of democracy, lead a bitter struggle to overthrow Chun.

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That struggle has long been waged partly on the campuses of Korea, where many Utopian students pursue a self-proclaimed romanticist mission as the conscience of their nation's repressed freedom.

Since the June 10 official selection of Mr. Roh as the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, the campuses and main streets of Seoul and other major cities have been racked by turmoil. Korean dissidents clearly feel that time is on their side. They are encouraged by the combination of momentum spilling over from Cory Aquino's ``people power'' movement in the Philippines, widespread international criticism of the Chun regime's repressive ways, some hopes that the Reagan administration might put teeth into its recently improved rhetoric by backing the democratic cause in a showdown, and - most important - confidence that the deadline imposed by the 1988 Seoul Olympics will work in their favor by compelling Chun's regime to back down and compromise on pluralistic terms so that the games will not be jeopardized.

Because of democratic successes in the Philippines and a series of Latin American countries, all of which turned their backs on dictatorships, there is an implicit assumption in much Western coverage of events in Korea that democratic forces can be victorious in Seoul, too, if they receive appropriate and persistent foreign encouragement. United States press reportage and analysis of events in Korea often convey a sense of guilt arising from American responsibility for the Republic of Korea as a state and for the growth of militaristic elements at the helm in Seoul. Both of these factors lend a degree of spurious self-fulfilling prophecy to many American expectations regarding Korean politics. Actually, despite hopes in the US and Korea, there is no reason to believe that Seoul's authoritarian rulers will topple like a domino from the momentum of events elsewhere.

Despite their fluctuations between hard-line crackdowns and shows of flexibility, the inertia of their grip on power is tremendous and not easily shaken. Neither will US self-recrimination over alleged causality in South Korea's political troubles significantly contribute to resolving them. The evolution of Korean politics is largely independent of events elsewhere, and US influence over that process is marginal today and decreasing. Just as the Korean opposition is nationalistic, frequently to the extent of paranoid xenophobia, so too is the ruling elite highly nationalistic and deeply suspicious of foreign pressures. Neither those in power nor those who thirst for it are amenable to foreign interlopers. Americans must bear this reality in mind.