South Korea is in the midst of a wave of repression unprecedented in the country's recent political history. While international attention has focused primarily on the death sentence ordered last month for former presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung, hundreds of other Korean dissidents have been facing military trials at the hands of President Chun Doo Hwan's martial law regime.
Thousands more, deemed by the government to be politically or socially undesirable, have been forced from their jobs, expelled from their schools, or detained as "hooligans" and sent to reeducation camps.
The most significant and potentially most explosive trial is taking place in Kwangju, scene of an antigovernment uprising last May in which hundreds of demonstrators demanding an end to martial law and the restoration of democracy were killed when Army troops recaptured the city.
Since then, there has been an uneasy calm here, due in large part to the continued presence of armed soldiers on the streets, military checkpoints at the entrance to the city, a greatly expanded network of police informers, and an ongoing roundup of suspected dissidents.
But beneath the surface, Kwangju is bitter and tense. Posters hailing President chun's recent inauguration were repeatedly defaced, and eventually had to be protected by armed guards. Copies of the government's just-published Constitution have been torn from local billboards.
The atmosphere has been further influenced by the current trial, which is being held in secret before a five-man military tribunal at an Army base outside the city. Although the press and public are barred, and the government does not even acknowledge teh existence of the trial, dissident sources say it involves 172 people accused of participating in the springtime protests.
The 172 have been charged with offenses ranging from disturbing public order to sedition. The sources report that most of those facing lesser charges already have been convicted and given jail terms of up to 20 years.
Now the trial has moved into its final phase, with the arraignment on sedition charges of 13 prominent local citizens described by the government as the ringleaders of the uprising. The 13 include Myong Ro Kuen, a distinguished professor of English at Kwangju's Chonnam National University, Oh Byong Moon, a former dean at the same university, the president and secretary-general of the Kwangju YMCA, two priests, and several well-known lawyers and academics. All of them could get a death penalty.
The government's indictment claims the 13 maintained clandestine links with Kim Dae Jung and incited the population to revolt. The defendants have denied the charges, pointing out that they were members of a committee that tried to mediate between the protestors and the Army in the hope of avoiding further bloodshed.
Whatever the truth, those on trial have been denied lawyers of their choice and provided instead with government- appointed attorneys. Moreover, friends adn relatives of the 13 claim thay have been beaten and in some cases stripped naked and interrogated while in prison.
The trial in Kwangju is not the only sign of the regime's continuing campaign to eliminate political opposition and consolidate its hold on power. In recent weeks, several hundred young dissidents have been secretly tried in Seoul for participating in protest rallies last spring. Appearing before military tribunals in groups of 40 or 50, the protestors have been given sentences ranging from probation to two or three years in jail.
At the same time, government-sponsored "purification committees" have been spearheading a political and cultural purge that has left no Korean institution untouched. Virtually every factory, shop, church, newspaper, and office in the country has been required to establish such a committee.
With close links to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) and military intelligence, the committees have been charged with the job of rooting out all "impure elements." Although few dispute the need for eliminating corruption, which had become rampant under the Park regime, the definition of "impurity" has been left up tot the authorities. This has meant that most of those targeted for purification have been critics of the government.
Even as it has been clamping down on its opponents, President Chun's military-dominated regime has moved to "civilianize" itself and gain greater political legitimacy.
At the core of this effort has been the publication of a new Constitution to replace that of President Park, who was assassinated Oct. 26, 1979. Government officials claim the new document, which will be put to a nationwide referendum Oct. 22, is much more liberal than Park's.
But the new Constitution contains 10 "supplementary articles" that raise serious questions as to just how democratic it will be. The articles order the immediate dissolution of all existing political parties and the National Assembly. In place of the legislature a "special committee on national security measures" is to govern South Korea until a presidential election next spring.
The special committee is heavily dominated by the military. In addition to President Chun, its members include the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the director of the much-feared KCIA , and the country's martial law commander.
According to the articles, the special committee, in its role as temporary replacement for the National Assembly, will have the power to ban from political life people who in the past were allegedly responsible for "social unrest." At the same time, it will determine the framework for whatever new political parties are allowed to contest next year's election.
Korean officials have promised that these powers will not be used in a "vengeful manner." But many Koreans remain convinced the legislation is designed to remove antigovernment figures from the country's political life. They point to the forced retirement of 25 top politicians this summer on similar vaguely worded charges as a chilling sign of possible future developments.
The continuing repression has not, however, crushed popular opposition to military rule here. In recent days there have been sporadic demonstrations at campuses in Seoul and the southern city of Taegu, plus repeated rallies outside the Army base in Kwangju where the secret trial is being held.
And while President Chun's government appears to have the situation under control for the moment, many observers believe his draconian policies eventually will prove counterproductive and lead only to more instability and political disorder in South Korea.