South Korea's ruling party is trying to reshape itself to survive as a political institution once President Chun Doo Hwan steps down in early 1988. No political party in this nation's history has yet lasted longer than its leader's hold on power.
The particular problem confronting Mr. Chun's Democratic Justice Party (DJP) is a need to outgrow its role as a vehicle for the military's participation in national politics. This will be essential, party officials believe, if the DJP is to compete effectively against Chun's opponents in the 1988 presidential elections.
Many civilian party members are lobbying within the DJP for reforms that would make it a more effective and autonomous organization. The reformists are also urging substantial changes in Chun's Cabinet later this year.
``The basic principle is to strengthen the party as a political institution,'' says Hyun Hong Choo, a party committee member. ``The goal is to become more distinct from government and less dependent on the military.''
Senior military intelligence officers founded the DJP soon after Chun came to power in a military coup in August 1980. Chun, then head of military security command, became party president and has relied heavily on military contacts in filling senior party and Cabinet posts.
In the five years since its founding, the party has developed as little more than a conduit for policies that originate with Chun or his closest supporters. The DJP's numerous committees and other internal institutions, although formally empowered by its constitution, have been unable to take initiatives of their own.
``The party has been Chun's instrument, without any real power to act,'' a Western diplomat says. ``Now there are many members who want to see it generate its own ideas and to choose Chun's successor themselves.''
The DJP has been especially active recently in developing its own policies on South Korea's central political issue: how the next president is to be chosen. The opposition New Korea Democratic Party is demanding amendments to Chun's 1980 Constitution to allow direct presidential elections. A DJP constitutional reform committee held its first meeting last month and is expected to issue recommendations later this year, party officials say.
Party and government sources indicate that Chun approves of the reform efforts. He is said to have given DJP chairman Roh Tae Woo more authority recently to introduce new leaders and effect internal changes.
``Since we are approaching the 1988 elections, we expect the ruling party to play a larger role in national politics,'' says Choi Chang Yoon, the President's political secretary. ``It has already gained momentum.''
But many diplomats and local political analysts are skeptical that the Chun regime will tolerate any real degree of party autonomy. Reforms will be accepted, these sources suggest, but not at the expense of the President's influence or that of the military.
Although Mr. Roh's power as party chairman has been enhanced, he has long been a key ally of Chun. Roh already appears to have undercut the party's constitutional initiative. While party members make much of the committee considering constitutional amendments, Roh said bluntly at a recent meeting with foreign reporters that ``we object to direct presidential elections.'' He also indicated strongly that he views the constitutional choice as between a cabinet-style system and one providing for indirect presidential elections. The opposition charges that neither of these would expose the governing party's candidate to a popular vote.
The DJP's effort to gain political independence is also limited, analysts say, by its failure to attract civilian political leaders. Diplomats say the chief liability for Roh, who is the leading contender for the DJP's presidential nomination, is his close identification with Chun.