South Koreans face some of the most anxious and dangerous moments in their history since the Korean War. The threat this time is not of an immediate North Korean invasion. Rather it is one of domestic political and economic instability that could ultimately encourage North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung to try again.
Outwardly the government of President Chun Doo Hwan, controlled by a tight little group of generals and colonels, rules South Korea with more iron discipline than during President Park Chung Hee's 18-year reign. Behind this facade, however, the regime has alienated not only students and intellectuals but also important members of the business community whose cooperation is essential to the recovery of the Korean economy, now in deep recession.
The Chun government's relations with its principal ally, the United States, and its major economic partner, Japan, are tense and unhappy because of the unresolved fate of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung. Mr. Kim is under sentence of death after a trial that was widely regarded as unfair.
President Chun himself is accused of sitting in the Blue House, the executive mansion, enswathed in a khaki curtain. Three colonels on the Blue House staff -- Ho Hwa Pyong, Ho Sam Su, and Lee Hak Bong -- are said to have screened the President off from visitors who might give him unpleasant or unwelcome tidings. One official who formerly enjoyed private access to the President gave up trying to see him when he found, during his last visit, that one of the colonels stood by the door listening in.
It is typical of the secretive atmosphere in which South Korean government now is conducted that many journalists are uncertain whether these colonels are still on active service or have been retired, as was the practice in the past for officers assuming political duties. This correspondent was told by usually reliable sources that the colonels had been promoted to brigadier generals and then retired. But there has been no official confirmation of this.
What started out, for instance, as a firm, simple order last September for a reorganization that would have just one company manufacturing passenger cars, instead of three, and just one company making heavy electric power-generating equipment, instead of two, has become entangled in the complexities of financing and of unscrambling the international connections that each of these companies had.
A foreign news agency was assured one day that South Korea's existing two news agencies would not be merged, only to find two days later that the merger was to take place. Newspapers running profitable radio stations have been divested of these stations, with compensation deferred for three years and then to be paid out in installments over a five-year period. With inflation exceeding 30 percent last year, the arrangement is close to confiscatory. Businessmen complain that they no longer know who to go to in order to obtain firm, irrevocable decisions. Government ministries wait for decisions to come from the Blue House, but these decisions are frequently contradictory and have to be reversed because they were not sufficiently thought through in the first place.
The reorganization of the news media which, the government claims, the media itself is carrying out on a voluntary basis, seems designed to turn the media as a whole, already under draconian censorship and official guidance, into a pliable tool of government policy. There will be but one television network, a public corporation. There will be but one news agency. There will be but one provincial newspaper per province. Eight newspapers with national circulation will continue to be published in Seoul.
What many Korean observers find most disturbing is that these changes, along with reorganization of voluntary organizations and a host of new legislation still in the pipeline, are not taking place as a result of broadbased popular discussion as promised by the President.
Rather, they seem to be the handiwork of a small, almost conspiratorial group of close collaborators of President Chun, most of them colonels. There is no certainty that the officer corps as a whole is behind these changes or thinks that Army officers should be so closely involved in politics. In fact, rumors have been circulating for some time that a disturbance of some kind took place not long ago at the Korean Military Academy, protesting the political role that some Army officers have assumed. The commandant of the academy, Gen. Kim Bok Dong, was one of the original supporters of the Dec. 12, 1979, coup by which General Chun began his ascent to the presidency. But General Kim is now said to be strongly of the view that military officers should stick to military duties.
"If the Army is disunited, South Korea is lost," exclaimed on intellectual who still thinks that the country's only viable choice is to stay with President Chun. He and many others believe that the country can ill afford another cop and that it is equally unrealistic to expect an early restoration of democracy through free elections.
"South Korea needs strong government," says this thinker. "But President Chun must divest himself of his human curtain -- a curtain he himself promised he would never put up. He cannot try to do everthing at once. He must take the people into his confidence, and carry out step by step only the most urgent and essential tasks required to put our economy back on the road."