Shake-up of S. Korea ruling party failed to shake out the military
Seoul — South Korea's ruling Democratic Justice Party announced a shake-up in its leadership Saturday, less than two weeks after the political opposition made strong gains in the Feb. 12 parliamentary elections. But the shake-up is seen as an ambiguous response to demands for political change in the country, and some observers have expressed concern that a new confrontation may be brewing between the government and the opposition.
The new lineup in the ruling party does not seem to have answered calls for the party's leadership to have a less ``military'' appearance. Nor does it offer many clues about how the government party will respond to popular demands for further political liberalization that were expressed so clearly in the election.
Roh Tae Woo, a former general in the Army, emerged as the party's new chairman after a week of intense debate over the party's response to the election results, which are widely seen as a rebuke to the government's political program.
South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan remains party president.
Urban representatives of the Democratic Justice Party (DJP) had demanded the ouster of Kwon Ik Hyun -- the outgoing chairman, whom they wanted held responsible for the party's very poor showing in South Korea's major cities.
One diplomat described the selection of Mr. Roh as party chairman as a ``hard-line'' choice.
Roh, who is often mentioned as a possible successor to President Chun in 1988, is chairman of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee. A classmate of Chun's at the Korea Military Academy, Roh played a key supporting role in the military coup that brought Chun to power in 1980.
He has served in several Cabinet posts since 1980 and is believed to be one of the President's closest political confidants. Roh did not campaign in a local constituency; he was appointed as one of the proportional representatives of the DJP in the National Assembly.
A somewhat paradoxical split has emerged in the DJP as a result of the election. Although the election is considered to be a popular call for moderation and compromise in the ruling camp, the party's more conservative representatives, who tend to come from rural areas, did very well.
More moderate factions from the cities turned in weak electoral performances and in some cases failed to win seats. They were overwhelmed by the recently-formed, strongly antigov-ernment New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP), which is supported by leading dissidents Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam. The results have placed more moderate members of the ruling party in a weaker position than their more conservative colleagues.
The NKDP managed to capture 43 percent of the vote in Seoul, as compared to just 27 percent for the ruling party. Opposition candidates appealed to the voters with a harsh attack on the government -- openly questioning the government's legitimacy and sometimes lacing their speeches with sarcastic jokes about the President and his wife. Several of Mrs. Chun's relatives have been linked to financial scandals in previous years.
Many observers were struck by a tendency among voters to choose candidates on the basis of party affiliation. Several relatively unknown candidates for the new party did very well in their electoral districts. Conventional wisdom had held that only well-known, popular candidates had a chance of winning in the election, regardless of their party affiliation.
In the countryside, the ruling party has a far stronger organizational base, which it used to mobilize the vote on its behalf. Nationwide, the DJP captured 35 percent of the vote, compared to 29 percent for the NKDP. Because Korea's complicated voting laws give a large bonus of seats to the party receiving the most votes, the DJP retained its majority of seats in the assembly.
The party's more conservative members, including outgoing chairman Kwon, had argued that once the party retained its majority in the assembly, it did not need to make any particular compromise with the opposition. The ouster of Kwon seems to represent an accommodation with the party's urban factions, but it is unclear how the selection of Roh, the incoming chairman, is meant to respond to the election results. Because of Roh's close relationship with the President, however, his appointment is expected to strengthen the authority of the party.
The strong performance for the hard-line opposition and the harsh rhetoric of the campaign apparently caught the government by surprise. ``The government clearly lost control of the situation,'' says one diplomat.
Several diplomats say the election results have given the opposition a new head of steam. Many expect anti-government student demonstrations to start afresh when universities go into session March 4. Some expect opposition to resort to obstructionist tactics to make its demands felt when the new assembly meets in April.
``All the elements are in place for a confrontation,'' says a diplomat.
Others point out, however, that the elements for a confrontation have been present for a long time in South Korea, and that neither side wants to provoke a showdown that could be very damaging to the country. The lack of violence and the general tranquility that characterized the election campaign -- despite the harsh rhetoric -- are interpreted as signs that the Korean people want general stability as well as political reform.
But the government and the opposition are bound to clash over their basic political programs. The opposition is demanding a constitutional amendment to allow for direct election of the president in 1988, when President Chun's term in office expires. They say the current system of election through an electoral college is easily manipulated by the government.
President Chun, however, has said repeatedly that retaining the current Constitution is essential to the maintenance of political stability, and necessary to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power in 1988.
The NKDP, meanwhile, is demanding the full restoration of political rights for Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, whom the party recognizes as it true leaders. -- 30 --