South Korea, a country with a demonstrated hunger for democracy and a keen fear of the communist North, has once again been placed under military rule. How long this new period of authoritarian rule lasts depends on the degree to which South Koreans acquiesce in the actions taken by Military Security Commander Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan and his colleagues May 17. Washington's reaction is also important.
The danger is that the clampdown is likely to bring smoldering resentment and a continual upwelling of public demands for an early return to civilian rule.
Martial law throughout South Korea was formally declared by President Choi Kyu-ha. Actual power resides with the martial-law authorities and especially with General Chon, who combines his military job with the equally powerful and sensitive position of acting director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).
Schools and universities have been closed. Public assemblies have been forbidden. Newspapers have been placed under censorship.
Prominent politicians including presidential candidates Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil have been arrested. So have scores of students who participated in street demonstrations calling for a speedy end to martial law earlier in the week.
At least one person was killed and more than 40 injured May 19 in the southern town of Kwangju, where troops clashed with about 3,000 demonstrators.
(In the past, martial law has not been extended to the island province of Cheju. The proclamation of nationwide martial law puts civil authorities formally under the control of the military, which remains theoretically responsible to the President. Mr. Choi is regarded as either a prisoner or a puppet of the military security commander.)
The martial law proclamation law came despite the students' decision after three continuous days of demonstrating to call off what would have been their biggest protest of all: a march scheduled for May 16, anniversary of the 1961 coup that put President Park, assassinated last October, in power. The move also came despite Washington's strenuous efforts to avoid a return to military rule. When accused of interfering in South Korean domestic affairs, Washington's stock response has been that it only wants the country to return to a democratically elected president and legislature as soon as possible.
The martial-law authorities have cited supposedly threatening North Korean troop movements as well as student demonstrations in the South for their move. But there is widespread opposition to the use of the communist threat as an excuse for suppression of democratic rights.