"Politics is the art of compromise," said a Korean editor. "But we Koreans are uncompromising." Another observer, a university professor, likens his fellow countrymen to bystanders at a huge bonfire. From one side, students run toward the fire with tins of korosene on their backs. From another side rush what the professor calls the "military radicals," carrying sticks of explosives in their hands.
"How can we keep these two groups away from the fire?" the professor asks. "That is our dilemma."
IF South Korea is enjoying an uneasy calm today, it is because strong man Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan and his comrades in arms have cracked down with Draconian rigor on every possible manifestation of dissidence.Yet, under the surface, nothing has been solved.
The yearning of the South Korean middle class, even the yearning of many South Korean workers, is for stability and a full rice bowl. The rhetoric of workers is to decry selfish capitalists, yet in these times of economic troubles many workers are willing to forego wage increases and even to go along with delayed or partial payment of wages so the company they work for may survive.
But these same middle-class citizens would be the first to admit that all is not well with Korean society. While nuances and articulations differ, there is wide agreement that freedom and social justice are the goals most Koreans most urgently require.
Traditionally, students have marched and fought and demonstrated for both goals. Under the 18-year authoritarian rule of the late President Park, the student movement, though frequently suppressed, came bubbling up time and again, each four-year generation somehow handing on the torch to the next. Their elders, while deploring the excesses, looked to the students to give vent to their own inner feelings.
Politically, it was probably both expedient and wise for President Park, early in his regime, to reach a compromise agreement with the Japanese on economic aid in lieu of reparations. The students who took to te streets against the agreement were defeated. At the same time, many older Koreans could sympathize with the students' nationalistic fervor against Korea's former colonial overlord, as well as the students' suspicions that Japanese and Korean politicians, and businessmen connected with them, would be the chief beneficiaries.
But radicalism and nationalistic fervor are not the sole preserve of the students. Both traits are share in large measure by South Korea's officer corps , many of whom come from relatively poor families.
General Chon's Dec. 12 coup was conducted against the military establishment of the day. There was an almost complete purge of officers senior to General Chon and his classmates of the military academy's 11th class.
Many of the general officers then on the active list had been generals for as long as 25 years, having been promoted during or immediately after the Korean war. No wonder officers of field grade became impatient, especially since there was a provision that those who failed to make general were automatically retired after a numbers of years. No wonder unsavory scandals were aired over the sale of brigadier generalships to colonels desperate to avoid retirement.
In addition, junior officers felt they were far better educated and more technically proficient than the old generals whose training went back to the Japanese occupation or to the emergency days of the Korean war.
General Chon and his comrades of the 11th military academy class were favored by the late President Park. But once President Park was assassinated, they had little respect or sympathy for the senior generals who then occupied the leading positions within the defense establishment. Rather, their links were to the colonels and lieutenant colonels immediately below them -- and indeed it was with the support of these field grade officers that they succeeded in their Dec. 12 coup.
In a way, therefore, their radicalism paralleled that of the students in society. They, too, wanted to uproot corruption, and to see social justice prevail. "Belive me," said one colonel to a journalist acquitance, "our motives are pure."
These officers have little use for democratic freedoms, believing them to be luxuries that countries directly threatened by communism can ill afford. But their sense of social justice is strong. The purification of government, business, political, and academic circles they are now carrying on has its ulterior side, but the basic theme of anticorruption is one the students themselves applaud, and large numbers of ordinary citizens as well.
Yet between the force represented by the students and that represented by the officer corps there is no compromise. Since the military have the guns, the students have been forced to give way. In the Kwangju rebillion in May, they resisted, briefly, having raided the armories. Once the Army decided to move in earnest, it easily swept all armed resistance aside.
As along as force remains the principal weapon of the Army, it cannot gain the popular support it requires to establish its legitimacy.Yet ordinary citizens who resent the Army's restrictions on freedom would probably be even more upset if the students really had their way. No one over 40 has forgotten the Korean war or expects North Korean President Kim Il Sung to take advantage of any target of opportunity that may present itself.
Can some new leader or force rise that will articulate a program and a goal so appealing as to encompass both military and students among his supporters? Several have tried, including the imprisoned Kim Dae Jung. None has wholly succeeded. And so political instability persists in a country that yearns for dignity and freedom, justice, and stability.