South Korea takes several political, social steps forward

South Korea has entered 1982 after a year of quiet but notable political and social progress.

When Gen. Chun Doo Hwan stepped from the anonymous ranks of the military into the limelight of the presidency in the summer of 1980, he imposed draconian measures to curb student disturbances and silence political opposition. Many doubted his promise of early liberalization.

But last year saw: the lifting of martial law; the emergence of new political parties; presidential and parliamentary elections; amnesty for several thousand prisoners; greater freedom of travel overseas, and a substantial if not total recovery from the economic recession of the previous two years.

As is usual with South Korean military-based governments, restrictions remain in force. The government places limits on serious opposition.

In foreign affairs, too, President Chun made favorable headlines. In February he was the first head of state that Ronald Reagan received as President. He also gained favorable international exposure on a tour of Southeast Asia. And in recent weeks, he has gone on to launch a peaceful reunification initiative toward North Korea - which Pyongyang rejected.

At home, the midnight to 4 a.m. curfew, in force in varying degrees since 1945, has been lifted completely. Seoul has been chosen as the venue for the 1986 Asian games and the 1988 Olympic Games.

On the other side of the balance sheet, it should be noted that the eight-year ban on 567 former politicians remains in force despite opposition calls that it be revoked. Newspapers report students being expelled, detained, or sentenced to prison terms for antigovernment activity, demonstrations, and scattering pamphlets. Recently over 9,000 people were detained by police in the capital in one night for minor traffic infringements and jaywalking.

A 30-year-old publisher has been sentenced to life imprisonment for contravening the national security law. He admitted he had organized a workers' study group to promote their rights and welfare. The books he published, described by the prosecution as pro-Communist, were mostly standard works on socialism and labor that can be found in US university libraries.

Mr. Lee, a Roman Catholic, denied that he planned the violent overthrow of the government. No evidence was presented that he had ever been in touch with organizations affiliated with communist North Korea or that he had received any funding from abroad. Twenty-four others were sentenced with him to terms of from one to 10 years.

Dissident Kim Dae Jung, a Roman Catholic who was one of late President Park Chung Hee's main opponents, is serving the second year of a life term.

As one opposition leader explains it, the Chun government has eased up on Protestant oppositionists while remaining strict with Roman Catholic dissidents.

Last month the government gave foreign diplomats a rare briefing on its human rights position. Allegations made in overseas reports of arbitrary arrests, beatings and deaths in labor camps in Korea were strongly denied. Diplomats were told that 2,403 people had been detained under the social protection law but no political dissidents were included in this category.

However, one former detainee who claimed he had been kept in a camp for a month after watching a street brawl in which he was not involved, said that many of the allegations of ill-treatment were true.

Perhaps a comment by the government spokesman saying the detained were treated as ordinary soldiers helps explain matters. One Korean, recalling his military service, says: ''In the US Army if you damage a piece of equipment, they cut your pay. In the Korean Army we don't get paid enough to do that so the sergeant slaps your face and beats you with a stick - it makes you more careful in future.''


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