General Chun Doo Hwan says he considers his election to the presidency of South Korea as a national call to create "a new history" for his country. Indeed, a new history is what that country needs and what thousands of students and other Koreans demonstrated for last spring until they were harshly put down. The question is whether Chun's version of that history, which includes what he calls a "democratic welfare state," will sufficiently serve the nation's requirements of stability, security, increased economic equity, and progress toward the political liberazation that was promised after the assassination of President Park Chung Hee.
Chun's purges of politicians and press on the way to his present position do not augur well. His election was a rubber-stamp affair by an electoral body under Park's authoritarian constitution. The promised new constitution is not expected to provide for direct election of a president. In any case the opposition has been rendered leaderless.
There is some expectation that international opinion may be recognized by stopping short of the death penalty for the most prominent dissident, Kim Dae Jung, in his current trial for attempted sedition. But Kim has reportedly said he was threatened with torture during 15 hours of interrogation when he was forced to remain naked in an underground cell. And a spokesman for South Korea's chief ally, the United States, has called the charges against Kim "far-fetched."
No wonder President Carter recently said that "we have been deeply concerned about Chun and some of the policies he's put forward." He added what should be the minimum response to a regime which is in effect supported by a continuing US military presence -- that "we . . . are letting our concern be expressed very clearly to the Koreans."
How clearly, Mr. President? That is the question that comes to mind in the light of the old history of American support of other authoritarian leaders, such as the Shah in Iran and Somoza in Nicaragua, Washington has to take account of the peace and security needs that may be served by US support of South Korea under another strongman. But it also has to preserve enough diplomatic independence to maintain contact with the democratic opposition, for example, and thus not remain identified solely with repressive forces. Washington's being surprised by the Iranian revolution should have been sufficient warning of the failure to have lines of information far enough beyond the ruling circles.
At the same time, President Chun has the opportunity to dispel doubts generated from his past record by ensuring that his "new history" will be a progressive one.