South Korea's President Chun faces test as conciliator; Reopening of universities will offer first gauge of regime's popularity
Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, South Korea's fifth president, has already demonstrated he is a strong leader. Will he now try to acquire the reputation of a conciliator as well?
General Chun took the oath of office as chief of state at a gymnasium in Seoul Sept. 1.
Legally, he became president Aug. 27 at the moment of his election by the National Conference for Unification, which acts as an electoral college. "I consider my election as a national call for me to dedicate myself to the creation of a new history in the country," he said on that occasion.
The first major test of the Chun administration's ability will come when the universities are reopened later this month. Students, cowed by wholesale arrests and the closure of their institutions since the declaration of full martial law May 17, are not expected to revive the noisy demonstrations that characterized the months of April and May.
Nevertheless, how quiet the campuses are will be one litmus test of President Chun's acceptability. If he passes, he will be encouraged to ease the Draconian security measures that currently make South Korea one of the most authoritarian states in the noncommunist world.
Publication of a new draft constitution and a national referendum on it will follow. The draft is likely to propose that the president continue to be elected indirectly, as he is under the present socalled Yushin Constitution promulgated by the late President Park, General Chun's mentor, in 1972.
During Monday's inaugural ceremonies General Chun pledged that the constitutional referendum would be held before the end of October. He said he would lift martial law before a new presidential election, scheduled for June 1981.
Both that election and this fall's constitutional referendum had been promised by former President Choi Kyu Hah.
The United States and Japan, respectively South Korea's security guarantor and chief economic partner, have reacted coolly to General Chun's election.
A State Department spokesman made it clear that the United States regarded the Chun administration as a "transitional government" pledged to restoring democratic civilian rule as quickly as possible. Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki sent a pro forma message of congratulations, while continuing to express concern about the fate of dissident leader and former presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung, now under court martial for alleged treason.
Legally, General Chun can serve until the expiration of assassinated President Park's term in December 1984. He has pledged, as did his civilian predecessor, Choi Kyu Hah, that a new constitution will be submitted to a national referendum in the fall and that a new president can be elected in the first half of next year.
In an interview distributed by the South Korean government, General Chun recently said: "An election that does not reflect public opinion is meaningless. . . . If [an] indirect election is little more than a vote of confidence in a specific candidate, as were the elections by the National Conference for Unification, then indirect elections will not effectively reflect public opinion. . . . We must find an appropriate institutional machinery to guarantee free competition among candidates so that public opinion can be fully represented."
Having assumed the presidency as a result of an election that he himself recognizes does not "effectively reflect public opinion," General Chun must try to win over the populace through the positive achievements of his fledgling administration. He has been ruthless in rooting out corruption as well as suppressing all evidence of opposition to his regime.
What he must now try to do is restore a degree of normality to the South Korean political picture, normality that will give his countrymen confidence in their future and foreign investors and trading partners confidence in the country's stability.
During his 29 years as a military officer, General Chun acquired the reputation not only of being a talented administrator but also of being a "political" general, well attuned to all the nuances of politics within the Korean military establishment. He is now having to apply these talents to the national picture as a whole -- very different from the hierarchic military structure within which he first came to President Park's attention and favor.
As a scholar once said to Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han dynasty, "Your majesty gained the empire on horseback. Can you rule it on horseback as well?"