Thirty-seven million South Koreans face some awesome challenges in their quest for stable democratic government. "The field of vision is zero," exclaims one political observer who has followed the intricate course of events since the assassination of stern, authoritarian President Park six months ago.
For South Koreans this transitional period poses a serious dilemma:
They want a popularly elected president who would be restrained by a democratic constitution. The problem is how to achieve this without losing momentum or risking a law-and-order breakdown that would play into the hands of communist north Korea.
Students, the self-proclaimed spearheads of the thrust for freedom and democracy, are impatient. Hundreds of students calling for the repeal of martial law (instituted after the Park assassination) clashed with riot police May 8 at Wonkwang University, about 100 miles south of here.
More than 150 people were injured in similar demonstrations in three cities last week. Prime Minister Shin Hyon Hwack said May 3 martial law would be lifted before the presidential election early next year.
So far, the demonstrations have not reachedthe scale or fury of the early 1960s upheavals. But there is distinct unease within President Choi Kyu-ha's transitional government and among martial-law authorities.
Armed with a growing list of economic grievances at a time of spiraling inflation, workers are also staging strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations. The Park government never recognized the right to strike or to free collective bargaining.
The transitional government is trying to work out a modus vivendi acceptable to employers and employees. It settled the most threatening recent disturbance: that of coal miners who for three days besieged the mining town of Sabuk 60 miles east of Seoul. It has been cautiously tackling other disputes in a situation where the strict rules and regulations of President Park's authoritarian Yushin system remain in place but cannot be implemented without force.
Politicians, whether of the former ruling party, the Democratic Republicans, or of the former opposition party, the New Democrats, are naturally anxious to move out from the transitional government's state of limbo. But the interests of the leading candidates for the presidency -- the three Kims -- conflict. Each is accused of maneuvering more to ensure his own political success than to legitimize and stabilize the democratic process.
The three Kims are Kim Jong Pil of the Democratic Republicans; kim Young Sam of the New Democrats; and Kim Dae Jung, kidnapped and imprisoned during the Yushin era, who is mounting a nationwide campaign for freedom and democracy against what he calls the remnants of the Yushin system.
President Choi, a career diplomat and civil servant, has not explicitly taken himself out of the running. Nor has he announced a detailed timetable for the transition to democratic rule. But the energetic Mr. Shin has stated publicly that neither he nor Mr. Choi will be presidential candidates.
The new constitution is expected to be put up to a vote this fall. Presidential elections will likely follow next year. Without a more explicit commitment from the transitional government, however, public speculation and uncertainty are bound to continue.
Even greater uncertainty surrounds the martial-law authorities, especially the military security commander, Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan. General Chon recently took over the powerful post of acting director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
It is unlikely General Chon will institute a coup, which would alienate a population already restive under President Park's long autocracy. It would also strain relations between Seoul and its ally, the United States.
Even though there have been hints of unhappiness over General Chon's new role , the Carter administration has unleashed no blunderbuss tactics. Washington has chosen the path of subtlety and nuance rather than of table thumping. The generals are not yet all-powerful, and neither they nor any of the other actors in the intricately unfolding drama have taken a decisively irreversible step.