Holding Chun to his promise

SOUTH Korean President Chun Doo Hwan deserves credit for holding direct talks, as he recently did, with key leaders of his democratic opposition. His opponents are seeking a major change in South Korea's constitution. They want direct presidential elections in 1988 -- `a la the American presidential process -- rather than choosing their president under an indirect electoral system, as is required by the constitution that was adopted in 1980 under President Chun's patronage. Although he has said he will step down when his term expires, Mr. Chun favors retention of the indirect process. That means he will be able to pick his successor in 1988. In his meeting with the opposition, Chun said that if the government and the opposition could agree on reforming the present constitutional system in parliament, he would have ``no intention of opposing them.''

Now, since President Chun's party hold 148 seats in the 276-member parliament, it seems unlikely that there will be any official lurch toward reform without the president himself signaling such a shift. For all the hints of ``accommodation,'' Chun seems unwilling to change his course on election reform. But in light of the vehement mass protests that have troubled South Korea in recent weeks -- such as the clash between police and demonstrators at Inchon Saturday, which was in part marked by a disturbing tone of ``anti-Americanism'' -- the need for genuine consideration of constititonal change becomes all the more urgent.

That's where President Chun comes in. He should be kept to his promise. The world community, including the United States, holds tough bargaining chips. The Asian Games will be staged in South Korea in September. The Olympic Games are scheduled for 1988. South Korea, proud of its growing economic prowess, is eager to go ahead with both games.

It is no small matter that Chun met with his opposition -- something that President Marcos, for example, was loath to do in his final months in the Philippines. But more, far more, is necessary.

The Chun government needs to moderate its treatment of dissidents. Brutality by the police or military cannot be tolerated in a nation that has proved itself to be as remarkably creative as South Korea is. Seoul needs to be far more receptive to -- and tolerant of -- public dissent. And most important, Seoul should be made accountable on the Chun statement that, yes -- if there could be broad consensus by the government and opposition on constitutional change -- Chun would ``have no intention of opposing them.''

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