South Koreans teeter between hope and heartbreak
Seoul — For South Korea's 38 million people, this summer is a season of political wait-and-see. President Choi promises a new constitution in October and a new elected president and government by June of next year.
Meanwhile the whole country remains under martial law. Real power is concentrated in the hands of Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan and his tight little circle of comrades in arms, sometimes known as the "five princes."
The nation's most celebrated dissident, former presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung, remains incommunicado but is promised a court martial with defense counsel and access to family soon.
The universities are closed. Newspapers are strictly censored, and speech and assembly severely controlled. A young farmer miles from Seoul complained that when a group to which he belonged, which had been investigating the costs of farming, wanted to hold a friendly picnic, the authorities turned it down.
An extensive purge of politicians, officials, academics, lawyers, bankers, and employees of state corporations has been going on. Almost 7,000 civil servants and officials of state organizations have been dismissed this month. The ostensible reason is to eliminate endemic corruption. But among those affected are individuals who for one reason or another have incurred the displeasure of General Chon and his friends.
A couple of vignettes illustrate one aspect of the atmosphere of the times.
A career official in his mid-30s is suddenly notified that he is to be dismissed forthwith. He breaks down and cries aloud at his desk, while his colleagues look on embarrassingly. "He was a good worker," said one colleague. "He was dismissed, not for incompetence or taking bribes, but because he followed the wrong political line."
A former government minister is awakened at his home at 5 a.m. and not even given the time to brush his teeth or wash his face before being bundled off in a police car. Only after several days do his friends find out that he is in custody at the central police station. The charges against him are unknown, but it is suspected they have something to do with his known friendship with Kim Dae Jung.
It would be wrong to conclude from such incidents, however, that the country is seething with indignation or on the verge of a new explosion such as the student demonstrations of May that led to the imposition of martial law and the arrest of Kim Dae Jung and others.
"That's our dilemma," said one well-informed and concerned South Korean. "Some of us think that what the generals are doing is totally wrong, that they have imposed a military dictatorship that has no moral or legal justification.
"Others say, well, after all, there are some positive aspects about the general's actions. South Korea does have a bunch of corrupt politicans and officials who have managed to prosper from era to era but who must be eliminated if social justice is to prevail. Perhaps the general's tactics are too crude, but they are performing a necessary task."
This individual thinks that if South Korea's silent majority could speak, they would over-whelmingly voice two desires: First, that there be economic and political stability. Second, that there be a measure of democratic freedom.
South Koreans who have prospered during the past two decades of unprecedented economic growth do not want any risk of political turbulence that might endanger their hard-won economic gains and open the door to a new invasion from the communist North.
At the same time, they are tired of th authoritarian Yushin system imposed on them by the late President Park. General Chon and his friends cannot afford to flout entirely the expectations for greater freedom aroused in the wake of President Park's assassination last October.
In a way, if the people of South Korea are waiting, so are General Chon and his friends. They must get through the Kim Dae Jung trial in such a way that Mr. Kim is thoroughly eliminated as a political threat, while guarding against renewed student protests at home and possible fallout from abroad. In September , they must be able to reopen the universities without serious incidents. Above all, they must manage the difficult economic situation.
If, in the process of dealing with these problems, they somehow manage to win legitimacy for themselves in the eyes of the people, they may be able to draft a constitution under which General Chon will doff his uniform and run for president in a direct election, as General Park did under somewhat similar circumstances in 1963.
Many observers believe this is unlikely, and that the constitution that does emerge (and that must be approved by a referendum in October) will provide either for an indirectly elected president or for a ceremonial president and a powerful prime minister. Either way, a decision is unlikely before the end of the summer.