Chun's test: making sure Korea's prosperity continues

The universities have been reopened. Hooligans have been banished from the streets. "Examination hell" has been abolished. That is the visible, positive side of President Chun Doo Hwan's achievements so far -- all of them promised or carried out before he doffed his uniform to be inaugurated as South Korea's fifth president.

On the negative side, martial law continues, as does the strictest control over the news media and over speech and assembly. The National Assembly will be reopened Sept. 20 to legitimize the appointment of a new prime minister, but many elected assemblymen have been purged. Some are still in jail.

A death sentence has been requested by those prosecuting South Korea's best-known political dissident, former presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung.

"A democratic welfare state," a "democracy befitting Korea's history and traditions" -- these are the slogans of the Chun regime, as they were of General Chun's assassinated mentor, the late President Park Chung Hee. The terms are vague, and what is not meant seems clearer than what is meant.

The hoopla of Western elections, the extravagant campaign promises, the multiplicity of candidates, the scandals uncovered by a freewheeling press -- none of these are wanted by General Chun and the colonels, many of them now generals, who brought him to power. There is much talk of Confucian virtues, the principal one being that everyone in society knows his own place.

Public relations are difficult to judge. There was a genuine desire for greater freedom immediately after President Park's assassination Oct. 26. There was also a genuine fear of a breakdown of law and order when students took to the streets in April and May of this year, precipitating a military crackdown and the Kwangju rebellion.

General Chun and his friends played successfully on the fears of the citizenry but have not yet really satisfied popular desires. That is why the new President cannot afford to fool around with popular elections, as President Park had to do during the early years of his regime.

The new constitution that is to be submitted to a popular referendum in October is reliably reported to call for an indirectly elected president, as does the present Yushin Constitution that President Park imposed in 1972.

In the immediate future, the most important tests of the new regime are likely to come in the economic field, rather than the political. South Koreans, whose relative prosperity (per capita GNP of $1,624 in 1979) is still new, are probably prepared to wait a bit longer for political freedoms if they can be assured their living standards will continue to improve. But this is precisely what, in the uncertain economic climate of the world today, President Chun cannot guarantee.

His intentions are reasonably clear. He has named as prime minister Dr. Nam Duck Woo, an economist who guided the Korean economy's spectacular growth during most of the 1970s. He did not use the appointment of a new Cabinet to reward his military cronies and subordinates. Most of the ministers are career civil servants untainted by scandals or corruption, as were so many government officials and politicians during the last years of the Park regime.

In other words, President Chun will run a clean government, dedicated to steering South Korea through the difficult economic times immediately ahead. Overextended heavy industry is being reorganized: Hence forth only one company, Hyundae, will manufacture cars, and another, Daewoo, will concentrate on power generation equipment.

The tight money policy imposed at the end of the Park regime is not being abandoned altogether, but priority will be given to job security and increased wages at the expense of continuing inflation.

The export picture so far is encouraging, and the government expects to achieve its target of $17 billion for the year. But many companies are in the doldrums, and there have been some spectacular bankruptcies.

The world's confidence that the Chun regime is here to stay is itself an ingredient in promoting economic and political stability in South Korea. This was probably one important reason for General Chun's decision to take over as transitional president now, before the new constitution is completed.

It is also why the new president would like to secure the public approbation of the US government. He knows Washington is not going to tamper with the security relationship with Seoul, whatever its dissatisfactions over his roughshod treatment of political opponents and the lack of progress toward democracy.

But to legitimize his regime with the Korean people he needs to be able to say that he has the wholehearted support of the United States. The most that can be said for US-South Korean relations so far, however, is that they are correct but cool -- a worrisome situation for a people still hyperconscious of the threat from the communist north.

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