South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan showed his compromising side once again this week. Apparently bowing to strong pressure from the political opposition, Mr. Chun for the first time said that he would not stand in the way of any early amendment to the Constitution -- if both the ruling and opposition parties in the National Assembly (parliament) agreed on an amendment bill.
The compromise softens a hard line Chun has clung to for more than five years, repeatedly vowing to resist all attempts to revise the Constitution until after 1988, when he says he will step down from office. Chun has argued that achieving South Korea's first peaceful transfer of presidential power is far more important than hasty democratic reforms.
But Chun's move hardly opens the door to rapid political reform. Leading oppositionist Kim Dae Jung immediately dismissed the move as offering nothing new. ``I already expected this,'' said Mr. Kim, adding: ``Their [the ruling party's real problem is whether they can have a constitution that guarantees their easy victory in the next election.''
The ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP) controls a majority of seats in parliament and so far has stood firmly against amending the Constitution. Even so, Chun's new position creates for the first time a possibility of compromise among moderate elements in the ruling and opposition camps. Chun now plans to establish a commission to study the Constitution and to make recommendations on revision to parliament.
``Its a pretty smart move,'' said a Western diplomat. ``It gives the government the initiative again.''
Chun's proposal comes after a period of rising political tension and increased student violence. His move is widely seen as an attempt to draw the intense debate over South Korea's political future off the streets and back into parliament.
The opposition has put pressure on Chun through a series of largely peaceful street rallies that began in early March. In the face of the opposition's campaign, the DJP has appeared to flounder without leadership.
``Younger ruling party members are starting to worry about their own futures,'' said a Korean political scientist.
Both government and opposition have been shocked by a recent upsurge of student violence. On Monday, two students set themselves on fire and are now in critical condition in a Seoul hospital. For the first time, students have begun calling for a withdrawal of United States forces from South Korea. The escalation of student activism has added a sense of urgency to the political debate. In an unusual step early in the week, Kim Dae Jung led fellow opposition politicians in condemning student extremism.
The opposition has succeeded in drawing great publicity to its cause. But at the same time, the petition drive for constitutional revision has gathered far fewer signatures than its organizers had originally hoped. The path toward further compromise is still strewn with obstacles. Chun has not provided new leadership so much as he has cut his own party free to find its own solution.