DESPITE all the dire predictions, and despite continuing problems, South Korea has lurched into the growing column of nations embracing democracy. That is a major development in Asia, following as it does upon the emergence of the Philippines as a still deeply troubled, but nonetheless free, nation.
The two countries are very different. The Philippines, under President Ferdinand Marcos, had become a land with a ruling regime riddled with corruption, an economy on its knees, and a military establishment inefficient and poorly motivated.
South Korea, by contrast, is a kind of economic wonderland with a tough and effective army guarding against the threat of North Korean meddling and possible attack.
But while Mr. Marcos and his cronies held freedom at bay in the Philippines, an authoritarian regime tied to the military similarly thwarted the desire of the people for greater freedom in South Korea.
That has now changed. In a remarkable period of swift transition, Koreans have just undertaken an open election for the presidency and in February are due to hold elections for their National Assembly, or parliament. In the face of this good news, why, then, continuing problems?
First, there have been charges of irregularities in the recent election. Some of these were predictable; the embittered opposition was ready to cry ``fraud'' in the event of a loss, whether there was fraud or not. Most South Koreans themselves seem to discount that even without these alleged irregularities, the outcome would have been any different. If South Koreans really thought the election had been stolen from them they would almost certainly have returned to the massive street demonstrations that earlier this year put pressure on the regime for reform.
Though some students are out in the streets, they are not getting the mass and middle-class support needed to mount a serious challenge. The United States government has declared that it sees ``no evidence of systematic fraud'' in the election, US Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, a Democrat and frequent critic of the Reagan administration's policies in Asia, is on record with a similar view.
Second, the victor in the presidential election, Roh Tae Woo, represents the governing party, is a former general, and hails from the military class that the opposition had hoped to vanquish. But Mr. Roh has carefully distanced himself from the harsh and austere image of his predecessor, President Chun Doo Hwan. He has championed reforms and speaks grandly of new freedoms for South Korea.
His campaign was virtually assured of victory when the two main opposition candidates, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, could not agree that one of them should withdraw. They ran against each other, splitting the opposition and giving victory to Roh, even though he got a minority of the overall vote.
There is now a wave of resentment in South Korea against the two opposition leaders. Many Koreans who wanted to see real political change believe it was thwarted by the personal ambitions of the two Kims.
So a great deal now depends on Roh. Of the three main candidates, Roh was obviously the most acceptable to the present ruling regime. But to become acceptable to the bulk of the voters, he will have to move away from the old order and old practices.
One plus for him is the widespread desire not to rock South Korea's sturdy economic boat. The burgeoning economy has brought advantages for everybody, and while South Koreans want political reform, they also want the kind of stability that will permit that progress to continue.