Why Carter shouldn't stop in Seoul

Judging from past experience, the South Koreans cannot but be miffed that President Carter intends no stopover in Seoul during his upcoming visit to Japan. Ordinarily, touching base in South Korea is de rigueur for a US president wishing to signal continuing American commitment to that nation's security. But, in this instance, Mr. Carter plans no such stopover -- and we hope those plans stay firm. Not that we do not share Koreans' concern about the ambitions of their communist neighbors. But a presidential visit now would only embolden the military generals ruling South Korea to persist in their repugnant policy of repression -- a policy that undermines the very purpose of the American presence there.

Supporters and well-wishers of Korea are understandably disheartened by the latest moves of the government in Seoul. It has been announced that the country's leading champion of democracy, Kim Dae Jung, and 36 other persons will be tried by a military court for allegedly plotting the general rebellion in Kwangju in May. Mr. Kim has already suffered severely at the hands of the authorities. It is hard to see this continuing harassment of him as anything but part and parcel of the regime's ruthless campaign against the political opposition, a campaign which has included the arrest of dissidents, martial law, and the postponement of constitutional reform.

It need scarcely be added that the uprising in Kwangju reflected what most political observers agree is the growing popular demand for moves toward more democratic government. This poses a considerable challenge for the United States. The question is: Will the US continue gingerly to sidestep the issue at the expense of encouraging an unending cycle of repression and reaction and more repression in South Korea? Or will it, by prudently using the lever of its military and economic aid, quietly but firmly nudge the country away from authoritarian rule toward greater political freedom?

The record so far is dismal -- even in the kind of public signals Washington chooses to convey. Last month the Export-Import Bank sent its chairman to Seoul to discuss loans, this at the very time the South Korean generals were playing sport with previously promised democratic reforms. This only confirms what most of the Korean military believes; namely, that the US government, especially in an election year, will do nothing that could be misinterpreted as political weakness vis-a- vis North Korea.

Yet the point is (as the experience of Iran showed) that, by failing to take a strong position with the South Korean rulers, the US promotes continuing popular unrest which in itself weakens the nation's security. Political instability is an invitation to communist adventurism. The South Koreans, to be sure, have a legitimate concern about the communist threat. But the generals exploit this concern to keep the US military on their side and to refrain from carrying out constitutional removal from political power.

It is time the United States worked out a tough policy and stuck by it. This does not mean public flourishes that embarrass the South Korean leaders and incline them to dig in their heels even more. Instead, the US ought to make clear privately that it will begin turning off military programs, spare parts, and the like until and unless there is steady progress on the political front. The US envoy in Seoul should be empowered to implement this policy. For too long now Washington has supinely accepted an unacceptable situation. Mr. Carter ought to begin pointedly signalling that trials, arrests, and martial law will not indefinitely buy unqualified US military aid -- that an authoritarian regime almost 30 years after the Korean war is not what the American people want to support.

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