Series of crises shake South Korean strongman's hold

A series of crises that have beset South Korea this year have led some to ask a previously unthinkable question:

Can former Army strongman, President Chun Doo Hwan, see out his seven-year term scheduled to end in early 1988?

The apparently intractable problems of the economy and a train of events quite outside the President's control have apparently had some effect.

Veteran opposition politician Kim Young Sam dared to predict publicly that President Chun would not last in office beyond the fall of this year. He was promptly placed under house arrest for his temerity.

Mr. Chun himself has commented privately - though not publicly - that he would be happy to relinquish the reins of power. Nevertheless, the reality of Korean political life is that changes at the top have only come about as a result of popular uprising or military action. And so far, this opposition does not appear to have coalesced.

In this Confucian society with its acute sense of responsibility, any disaster such as the delay of summer rain at the time of rice planting is seen as a failure of government. Disaster reports that have hit the president's desk so far this year include:

A policeman running amok and killing dozens of villagers; arson at the US Cultural Center in Pusan; several cave-ins of the Seoul subway; and, the biggest of all, a near $1 billion promissory note scandal in which one of his relatives was alleged to have been involved.

Chun has reshuffled his cabinet five times so far this year in order to appease public opinion spearheaded by opposition political parties.

He has also purged the upper ranks of his ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP) following allegations that illicit monies from the loan scam found their way into party officials' pockets.

So where is the ''opposition'' to President Chun's continued tenure of power? And what is its strength?

The 400 generals of the armed forces and the hundreds of colonels - many highly educated with US degrees in administration and computer technology - tend to be edgy about civilian unrest. They fear unrest will be construed as weakness by North Korea, which could lead it to an attempt to unify the peninsula by force.

The military credits President Chun with cementing ties with the main ally, the United States, obtaining guarantees from President Reagan that there will be no withdrawal of the 40,000 US troops in Korea, and securing supplies of modern US weaponry such as the F-16 fighter.

As long as order is maintained ex-General Chun can probably count on the support of his brother officers.

South Korea's students, another important force, are credited with bringing about the downfall of the first government in the republic following its inauguration in 1948.

''But 320,000 students with sticks and stones will never match the might of 680,000 soldiers with guns,'' a foreigner wryly commented.

Army rule has not been threatened since President Park Chung Hee's 1961 coup - only the leader has changed, he added. President Park was killed by his own security chief in 1979.

The students are fairly muted compared with the mad days of May 1980 when tear gas drifted over the capital, culminating in a civil uprising in the provincial capital of Kwangju.

The apparent good behavior of the main part of the student body can be attributed to heavy infiltration of campuses by plainclothes policemen who grow their hair long and even attend classes.

''We could end up with the best educated police force in Asia,'' a lecturer said. It has also become tougher to graduate under new regulations that force colleges to reject up to 30 percent of their intake through competitive examinations.

''The kids just have less free time to demonstrate,'' the lecturer added.

Anti-government demonstrations have been limited to the occasional scattering of anti-Chun leaflets and a hard core who face harsh prison terms.

The recession has also provoked ripples of unrest on the labor front but nothing like the 1980 miners dispute in which Sabuk coalfield workers seized the town and held about 1,000 armed police at bay for three days.

Are there any obvious contenders for the presidency should Chun relinquish power early?

The opposition has shown some cohesion during the money market scandal but is still far from offering viable alternative leadership.

Former presidential contenders from the pre-Chun days can be ruled out. Kim Young Sam is under house arrest, Kim Dae Jung is serving a 20-year term for sedition, and Kim Jong Pil, the man who helped Park to power, is in disgrace for admitted corruption.

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