The world has so often welcomed what appeared to be stpes toward democracy in South Korea -- and then been sadly disappointed -- that wariness combines with hope as a new Constitution replaces the late President Park's authoritarian document. Whether hope is justified wil depend on the degree to which President Chun Doo Hwan builds on the new charter to foster freedom and stability rather than simply to consolidate the rule he assumed as a military strongman.
Now a president is to be restricted to one seven-year term in contrast with the life tenure, in effect, given to Park. He will not have the previous power to appoint a third of the National Assembly. And there are some other reductions of presidential prerogatives.
Not much public debate took place before the recent referendum in which 92 percent of the voters approved the new Constitution. (The now discredited Park charter had been approved by 91 percent.) The fewness of nonvoters was taken as a good sign by the government. From this distance it appears that the Koreans yearn for an end to recent turmoil and for the promise of national security, domestic peace, and orderly change.
The question, as before, is whether progress will come swiftly enough. The Constitution falls far short of the untrammeled political process and direct presidential elections sought by South Korean rights advocates. Under it the present political parties would be eliminated. New groups would be formed before next year's elections. The president would be named by an electoral body of 5,000 popularly elected members.
Until a new National Assembly is formed, lawmaking is in the hands of a Legislative Council appointed by President Chun. The interpretation of the Constitution will not fall to the Supreme Court but to a committee appointed by Mr. Chun.
In one view, the constitutional framework could bring to the fore a new political generation free of the taints of the past. It could also be exploited by the regime through "supplementary provisions" allowing, for example, the regulation of political activity by Mr. Chun's Legislative Council.
No one minimizes the difficulty of developing a strongly rooted democracy. We sympathize with South Korean governmental figures who have told us of their own hopes of moving toward democracy but a pace not disruptive to the country. At the least, of course, there should be an end to the repression and torture symbolized in the treatment of dissident Kim Dae Jung. Beyond that President Chun now has the opportunity to prove that steps in the right direction can continue without the lapses of before.