Recapture of Kwangju, South Korea's fourth largest city, by government forces May 27 shifts the political focus of this deeply disquieted country back to the capital, Seoul.
But the dilemma facing South Koreans remains unresolved: While many have had their fill of authoritarianism and think they are ready for a political democracy that matches the considerable economic progress they have achieved, they cannot simply dismiss the argument of the martial law generals that military security remains paramount in view of the threat from the North.
They know the country can ill afford a repetition of Kwangju-type disturbances or of the student demonstrations that rocked Seoul and other cities before the imposition of full martial law May 17.
This leaves the students as the only organized force capable of continuing the agitation for freedom and democracy. But thestudents also, if they go to violent extremes in this struggle, can lose public support -- as was shown in the latter stages both of the Seoul demonstrations and of the Kwangju insurrection.
"If I have to choose between Kim Il Sung [dictator of North Korea] and Chon Doo Hwan [South Korea's military strong man], I will take Chon Doo Hwan," exclaimed one middle- class South Korean.
Another said he though the people of Kwangju and of the surrounding Cholla Province would reserve judgment on that question until they see how generoulsy the martial law authorities deal with the aftermath of the insurrection.
Most citizens of this thrusting, bustling metropolis expressed relief that the weeklong siege of Kwangju was over. "We are relieved, but full of foreboding," one Seoul resident commented. "We still don't know what comes next."
Conditions in the country are still far from normal. The entire country is under martial law, with soldiers guarding newspapers offices and radio station and patrolling the streets.* Many politicians, students, and intellectuals are under arrest while others hide in fear of arrest. The press is censored, the universities are closed, as is the National Assembly.
Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan has told Korean journalists that he would try to open the universities and let political activities resume once the Kwangju situation was solved and the students were "ready to study."
He was less sanguine about prospects for reopening the National Assembly. He maintained that adherents of arrested political rivals Kim Dae Jung, and Kim Jong Pil would vie with those of Kim Young Sam (who, though confined to his house, has not been jailed) to oppose the martial-law authorities.
General Chon's own position, however, is still not entirely secure. It appears he would like to continue to be the power behind the throne, instead of stepping formally into a leading government position. As of the moment he is not even the martial law commander. He directs the powerful military security command and is acting director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). President Choi Kyu-ha is the chief of state, Park Chung Hoon is the acting prime minister, and Army chief of staff Gen. Lee Hi Sung is the martial law commander.
Behind this politico-military facade the really important decisions are being taken by General Chon and a coterie of military officers who arrested or cashiered senior generals following their minicoup of Dec. 12 last year.
The United States, after expressing anger over the unauthorized movement of UN command troops that accompanied the coup, has apparently acquiesced in what is by now a fait accompli. But is has registered the strong reservation that progress toward a democratically elected government should not be impeded thereby.
In his recent series of meetings with Korean publishers, editors, and journalists, however, General Chou has been emphasizing not the transitional nature of the present government but its legitimacy. Mr. Choi, he said, was elected President according to the same procedure by which his assassinated predecessor Park Chung Hee was elected.
This procedure of indirect election is part of the so-called Yushin system devised by the late President Park as a means of perpetuating his own rule. General Chon has not said that the Yushin system should be preserved without change, but it seems evident he prefers the continuation of basically authoritarian structure of government.