United States officials say recent demonstrations in South Korea calling for major constitutional reforms have not posed any immediate threats to the military or political stability of the Korean peninsula. But officials here are watching closely for any signs that North Korea may try to turn domestic unrest in their neighbor to the south into strategic advantage along the heavily fortified 38th Parallel, the invisible line that has divided Korea since World War II.
``We're watching carefully, but with no real alarm,'' says a State Department official.
``We're concerned only in the sense of how the North Koreans might read it,'' adds a senior Reagan administration official. ``They're the least sophisticated observers of the world scene. There's some concern they might interpret the kind of ferment that's going on in the South as an opportunity they could take advantage of.''
Inspired by recent events in the Philippines, South Korean opponents of President Chun Doo Hwan have launched a campaign demanding direct presidential elections in South Korea in lieu of the current electoral college system. The present system, Mr. Chun's opponents say, effectively will allow him to handpick his successor when he leaves office in 1988.
Backed by student groups and church leaders, over 50,000 people rallied Sunday in the provincial capital of Kwangju to collect signatures endorsing the constitutional revision.
During an antigovernment protest in Kwangju in 1980 that left hundreds dead, the Carter administration issued a warning to North Korea not to try to take advantage of domestic unrest in South Korea. But no similar warnings have accompanied this year's larger but more peaceful demonstrations, US officials say. While events in South Korea have evoked comparisons with the Philippines under deposed President Ferdinand Marcos -- both being strategically situated Asian countries with authoritarian governments, a restive democratic opposition, and strong ties to the US -- experts generally agree there is little likelihood the Philippine experience will be duplicated in South Korea.
``There's not much to be gained from the Philippines yardstick,'' says Korea expert Daryl Plunk of the Heritage Foundation.
Like Mr. Marcos, Chun has been dismissed as a dictator by critics at home. But a strong, expanding South Korean economy, plus a united, professional army, make Chun far more viable politically than Marcos proved to be. US officials also note Chun's recent flexibility in dealing with constitutional reform. After arresting hundreds of opposition politicians, Chun later switched tactics, engaging in a dialogue on constitutional reforms and allowing peaceful demonstrations.
``What we're seeing is that the government is not just retrenching but offering new options,'' says Mr. Plunk. ``Thus there are reasons for the US to be patient. As long as we see this movement, we should leave it up to the Koreans. This is not the time for the US government to consider any kind of direct intervention.''
The US has frequently criticized human rights violations by the Chun government. But unlike in the Philippines, where the US eventually decided Marcos was part of the problem and had to go, US officials retain confidence in the Chun regime. Because of his tight control of the South Korean military, Chun is also seen as a reliable custodian of US security interests on the peninsula.
The security of South Korea has been a matter of perpetual concern for the United States since the North Korean invasion of 1950 leading to the Korean war. US officials worry that domination of the Korean peninsula by the North would threaten the security of Japan and the stability of the entire region.
Fears of another surprise attack have been heightened by a five-year buildup of North Korean forces along the inter-Korean border. In addition, the offensive capabilities of the North Korean Army have been recently enhanced by the acquisition of new MIG-23 fighter aircraft from the Soviet Union. To deter future threats, the US has provided substantial amounts of military support to South Korea, including 40,000 American soldiers stationed in the country.