Split Korea: generation gap widens at rice-planting time

South Korea's rice transplanting, ordinarily a happy time of family field labor and reunion, is starting at a grim moment following the military takeover in Seoul.

Most young people, including some 280,000 college students, were expected to return home to their villages this week to help with this centuries-old task. Instead there may well be further violent student reaction to the suspension of civilian government, the resignation of the Cabinet, and the curbing of recently won civil rights.

Yet South Korea's village fathers seem likely to urge a peaceful compromise with the soldiers. With old tasks go old values. The older men and women who today do most of the farming in this rapidly industrializing nation are Confucian, with deeply ingrained beliefs in a close-knit, authoritarian society in which sons are subordinate to fathers, subjects subordinate to state.

To these villagers, the late President Park Chung Hee's Confucian-style rule meant stability and satisfaction as a result of vastly improved living standards. To them, President Park deserved obedience and respect.

To the 80,000 students who have taken to the streets of Seoul and other cities over the past few days, President Park was a tyrant who used Confucianism to mask a dictatorship. They demand the resignation of Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, South Korea's most powerful military figure since his putsch last December and his recent takeover of the internal security apparatus. The students fear he aspires to become another Park.

All spring the government kept promising a liberalized constitution and free elections but without fixing firm dates. Meanwhile General Chun kept consolidating his power. It was increasingly evident that the men President Park left behind were dead set against radical political change.

The demonstrators want an end to the martial law imposed since President Park's assissination last October, a liberalized constitution, and early free elections. Their professed goal is to foster national development through democratization. The kind of freedom these students say they want, and are prepared to take to the streets again to get, is the Western freedom of individual choice.

What complicates the Korean leadership crisis is that what the students want goes against the older, village-minded generation's Confucianist conduct of subordination of the individual, whether to parents or to national ruler.

In part a generational clash, it is also a conflict of ideas between the increasingly Westernized urban values of the fast-growing cities and the Confucian traditions of the fast-shrinking villages.

South Korea has industrialized and urbanized extremely fast. It averaged annual growth rates of 10 to 11 percent in the 1970s, with the world's fastest growth between 1973 and 1978. In 1950, eight of 10 South Koreans lived in villages; today less than three do. Less than 40 percent of the labor force still farms.

The Seoul rioting superficially suggests an analogy with Iran. The Shah fell after real income had risen an annual 15 percent. This questioned the generally held assumption that a steady rise in prosperity is the best prop for semi-dictators. The difference is that in Iran the Shah and his men were the Westernizers; traditional culture, Islam, reacted against them.

In South Korea, the Westernizers themselves -- students, Christians, the new urban middle class -- are reacting against the traditional Confucian authoritarian family and state.

What Korea and Iran do have in common is that change has come too fast. Most villagers seem appalled by the rioting not only from fear of North Korean military reaction or economic hardship but also because of the implied threat to filial piety. A breakdown of tradition is also evident in growing labor unrest as once-docile workers strike for and win pay raises to keep up with inflation that could exceed 30 percent this year.

South Korea used to be accused of paying its workers sweatshop wages, but manpower shortages have pushed up an unskilled man's daily earnings to about $10 . The country is caught in the same squeeze as other non-oil-producing nations that depend on trade.

South Korea has to pay a whopping oil bill of $6 billion this year, compared to $3.2 billion a year ago. Hopes it could earn enough abroad to do so, increasing its exports from $15.2 billion in 1979 to $16 billion this year, are fading because expectation of recession and protectionism loom in European and American markets. As in Japan, Korea's energy policy is to feed oil price rises through to consumers, which checks demand.

At one crack in January, domestic oil prices jumped 60 percent, electricity rates 36 percent. Korean economists say the worst is over, and the past record shows that in each round of higher energy costs, inflation rose by much less.

Korea has helped to pay for its oil with close to 100,000 workers in the Middle East, cashing in on its construction boom. But its biggest contractor is being investigated in Saudi Arabia for bribery, and interim-President Choi Kyu-ha flew to Riyadh last week. So far, South Korea's credit rating has held up, suggesting bankers are still hopeful the post-Park transfer of power can be peacefully made.

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