Which does the United States prefer, a South Korean editor asked heatedly, democracy or a military dictatorship? His interlocutor objected that the question seemed hardly fair. Of course the United States preferred democracy. But should it pursue this objective at the risk of jeopardizing the security of South Korea against attack from the communist North?
"There is risk whatever you do," was the answer shot back. "Which is the greater risk: a degree of political instability under democracy, or surface calm followed by an explosion under a military dictatorship?"
The editor and his friend were talking the day after it was known that Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan was to head a military-civilian junta heavily weighted in favor of the military.
Establishment of the junta, which bears the unwieldy title of Standing Committee of the Special Committee on National Security Measures, is the most recent step in General Chon's rise to power. It followed the imposition of full martial law, the arrest of prominent politicians, the suspension of the National Assembly, and the closing of the universities.
In recent days, junta authorities have detained at least eight South Korean journalists on suspicion of spreading false and seditious rumors.
President Choi Kyu-ha continues to say that progress toward a new constitution and an elected presidency will continue, but the context has totally changed.
As one South Korean commented bitterly, "After 18 years of authoritarianism under President Park, we thought we were finally on a bus headed toward democracy. Some of us complained about the bumpiness of the ride, but we all knew which way we were headed. Suddenly some thugs appeared and hijacked the bus. Then they tell us that we're still going in the same direction."
The US, which has 39,000 troops in South Korea to help protect it against a repetition of the communist invasion of 1950, has reacted with a fair amount of verbal vigor, but so far with little accompanying action. The only action that might have an immediate, sharp effect on the South Korean military, it is argued , is action in the security fied: threatening to withdraw US troops, or withholding credits for military sales to South Korea.
Any such action would risk sending the wrong signal to North Korea's communist dictator Kim Il Sung, many South Koreans agree. But some, in their rage and frustration over the actions of General Chon and his fellow officers, feel there must be a showdown.
"I feel said," said one, "that the United States no longer stresses democracy as its goal in South Korea. When you rescued us from the Japanese, when you defended us from the communist invaders, you said you were fighting for democracy. All through the 1950s, it seems to me, the American goal was to help create a democracy in South Korea -- not a carbon copy of the United States, but an open, pluralist, democratic society.
"That was why you sided with the student revolution against Syngman Rhee in 1960. Then somewhere in the 1960s, perhaps because of the Vietnam war, your goals changed. You just wanted security, you just wantes stability. You went along with Park Chung Hee's strong-man rule all through the 1960s and 1970s. President Carter even gave General Park a personal accolade by paying him a state visit last year -- just three months before he was assassinated."
He adds: "Can't you see that an excessive preoccupation with security can ultimately endanger security itself? Isn't it just as important to know what sort of South Korea you are defending as to know what you are defending South Korea against?
"Furthermore, we are not Iran. The alternative to General Chon is not a general breakdown of law and order, or communism, or even socialism. We are a deeply conservative society. Both political parties are conservative. Even the students (whose demonstrations were the excuse for martial law) are overwhelmingly middle class and certainly not radical. We learned our democracy from you."