S. Korean leader sows confusion about nation's political future

The downfall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines has become the hottest issue in South Korean politics. ``Let what happened in the Philippines be a lesson to those people up there!'' says a shopkeeper, shaking her finger in the direction of the presidential mansion.

Kim Dae Jung, the leading South Korean dissident, says the toppling of Mr. Marcos has given a new inspiration to the South Korean opposition. ``The Philippines situation will greatly influence Korea by demonstrating that people power is a basic element in politics,'' Mr. Kim said.

The nation's press has given extensive coverage to events in the Philippines. Like the Philippines, it has a large, popular opposition that has dedicated itself to democratic reform.

The parallel seemed especially evident in late February, when the government placed some 200 opposition leaders under house arrest to curb a peaceful signature campaign for constitutional amendment. The opposition hopes to gather 10 million signatures.

Some say Marcos's overthrow prompted the government here to call off its crackdown on the opposition. The United States government added its weight when a State Department spokesman denounced the crackdown.

The opposition wants to amend Korea's Constitution to allow for direct presidential elections. They say the current system of indirect elections will allow President Chun Doo Hwan, who came to power in 1980 after a military coup, virtually to name his successor. The government denies this.

The government has felt nervous enough about the analogy with the Philippines to issue an official denial that it has any relevance to South Korea. The parallel, analysts say, does not extend far beyond superficial political issues.

Unlike the 20 years of economic decline and corruption in the Philippines, this government's record of achievement is solid, particularly concerning the economy. Though there are many impoverished people in Manila, South Korea has a middle class, with a strong interest in political stability. A communist insurgency here would be unthinkable, given strong, widespread anticommunist sentiment.

Nonetheless, South Korea faces a political future that has become increasingly uncertain, particularly after a recent luncheon meeting between President Chun and Lee Min Woo, leader of the youngest opposition party, the New Korea Democratic Party.

Chun admitted to Mr. Lee that police action against the opposition to stamp out the signature campaign had been ``excessive.'' He agreed not to allow police to barricade opposition party offices again in order to prevent meetings. To some, this indicates participants in the signature campaign will no longer face arrest.

But at the same meeting, Chun threw the political situation into total confusion by turning an about face and pledging for the first time to amend the nation's Constitution in 1989.

Chun now says the ruling Democratic Justice Party will pledge to revise the Constitution after he leaves office in February 1988. The party's 1988 presidential candidate will also make the pledge, and will agree to step down after one year for a new election, says Chun.

In return, Chun is asking the opposition to call off its signature campaign.

Chun's pledge raises many questions, not the least of which is what kind of constitution he will stand behind. Chun says that issue will be studied in committees to be set up both under his direction and in the National Assembly.

Many Koreans are wondering why the President has made such a pledge, and have come up with a disturbing answer. Many now believe that Chun intends to step down in 1988, as he has repeatedly pledged to do, but that he may try to run for the presidency again in 1989.

``The President is floating a trial balloon,'' says a political scientist, who believes that Chun is trying to keep his options open.

Chun has not said whether he would run for office again, but the belief that he will try to keep a hold on presidential power alarms the opposition, and they promise to redouble efforts to gather 10 million signatures in favor of revising South Korea's Constitution.

Kim Dae Jung says the opposition will try to amend the Constitution this year to prevent another president from being elected under the current system.

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