TO say that nobody in the South Korean government ever really promised a problem-free presidential election next week would be the understatement of the year. The election had to be dragged out of the government, which resisted until the very end - when students and political activists took to the streets and threatened to lead the nation into civil unrest. Now that the election process is well under way - with the vote set for Dec. 16 - it can be said with some certainty that the South Korean people are going at it with the same intensity, competitiveness, and industry that they bring to their economic situation. The presidential contest has its flaws: charges of payoffs, misuse of government television, undue influence of the powerful South Korean military, excessive claims and exaggeration by rival candidates. It must still be considered remarkable for a nation without a long democratic tradition. The outcome, whatever happens, will have a profound effect on South Korea's democratic development. The country has been governed directly by a military-linked leadership since 1979, and, in fact, has been influenced by the military since the end of World War II.
Students, as of this writing, are seeking a unification of the divided opposition candidates, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung. The former Kim is considered the more moderate of the two, the latter, more of the populist, distrusted by the military. But if either Kim were to come to power, that step would be dramatic for the Korean Peninsula, representing a historic shift of power away from the South Korean Army.
And, if the challenge of the two Kims were not enough, there is a third Kim in the race - Kim Jong Pil - whose presence could take votes away from the ``government'' candidate, Roh Tae Woo, who was tapped to succeed outgoing President Chun Doo Hwan.
Can Mr. Roh still pull it off - owing to the opposition split? Perhaps. But even if he wins, it will likely be by a plurality, not a majority. To build a working majority, Roh might consider forging an alliance with either Kim Jong Pil or, unlikely as it might seem, Kim Young Sam. Could that happen? But what if an opposition candidate struck such a deal - say, two of the Kims getting together? What would be the reaction of the military?
Washington should get the word across loud and clear to the South Korean military that it will not tolerate an interference in the election process - either before Dec. 16 or afterward.
A final point seems in order for the South Korean military to recall: South Koreans, as a people, tend to be conservative by tradition, no matter how turbulent the streets of Seoul become. The nation is now eagerly preparing for next year's Olympic Games. Whoever is elected president shortly should seek to unite, not divide, South Korea as that nation looks ahead to an event that will be seen on television sets throughout the world.