Progress in Korea

THE path to stability is still rocky, but South Korea is tossing aside one roadblock after another in its progression to democratic rule. The latest heartening development is agreement on a draft of a new Constitution. It is heartening because both the government and opposition parties have made compromises - and compromise, as every Korean expert will tell you, is something that has hitherto been alien to Korean culture.

What does seem clear is that the unpopular era of President Chun Doo Hwan, with its repressive political characteristics, is over. Austere and aloof, Chun has promised to step down in February and, in anticipation of that, South Korea has been overtaken by a new mood of political freedom.

There is still a great gulf of distrust between the heavily military-influenced regime which currently holds power, and the opposition which seeks to assume that power and is reveling in new-found freedom of expression. The situation is also complicated by a wave of industrial unrest as low-paid Korean workers have demanded economic, as well as political, improvements.

But there are pressures on both sides to continue down the road of accommodation. One is South Korea's vibrant economy. Although many workers want a larger share of the economic pie, they know that their country is an economic leader in Asia. Most Koreans want to preserve this economic strength and potential rather than see it destroyed amid political upheaval.

Another pressure is that of the upcoming Olympic Games in the South Korean capital of Seoul. Ambitious plans have been laid for the opening of the Games in l988. An immense sports arena stands ready. Hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected. It is a time of immense pride for Koreans, and a time of symbolism. For beyond showing the world they can efficiently host such a world event, the Games are for them a kind of milestone marking South Korea's emergence from underdeveloped country to industrialized nation.

As pressure has mounted over the past year for political reform and democratization in South Korea, three possible scenarios have emerged.

One is a kind of people's revolution, similar to that which took place in the Philippines. Spearheading such a movement would be the student community, egged on by radical elements. Students and their supporters certainly have provided dramatic television footage over the months as they have battled with riot police amid clouds of tear gas. In general, the police have been able to contain these demonstrations, but Korea is just emerging from the summer holidays and the students will soon be back on their campuses and ready to try again.

What has been lacking is the physical involvement of the middle class, which has a vested interest in stability, and which, although lending some moral support, has not been out in the streets alongside the students.

Probably, in the face of the loosening up that has been taking place, the students will be lacking new fuel for their revolutionary campaign, although if the students and disaffected industrial workers formed an alliance in the streets, that could pose problems for the government.

The second possible scenario is not a revolution from the left, but a coup from the right. If street demonstrations get out of hand, if the stability of the country is threatened, or if communist subversion - either internally or from neighboring North Korea - is seen to be a problem, a military takeover by right-wing officers cannot be ruled out.

The third scenario is a reasonably orderly transition to something approaching democratic rule - a system under which both the present regime and the opposition would think they had a fair shot at achieving the presidency and power.

That is the direction in which South Korea seems to be moving.

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