The professor, chairman of a department at a prestigious South Korean university, faced a decidedly unacademic dilemma. Within the offices of the university department, radical students were discovered storing the makings of crude explosive devices, apparently to be used in confrontations with police. Should the students be turned in to the police?
The professor opted instead for dialogue. ``If I turn them in,'' he explained one night recently, ``then we would lose all possibility of being able to talk to these students.''
The professor's dilemma is not unique. Recent conversations with numerous members of the South Korean intelligentsia revealed a shared concern. Like many in the growing middle class, they feel trapped between two feared extremes. One is relatively new: a radical left-wing student movement that has broken the anticommunist ideological taboos in force since the Korean war.
The other extreme is represented by young, hard-line military officers. These men, sources say, perceive even the military-dominated government of President Chun Doo Hwan, a former general, as too ``weak.'' The fear often expressed here is that the officers are only waiting for an opportunity to stage a military coup. That opportunity would be provided by the violent actions of the radicals.
The two extremes threaten what is, for most South Koreans, a hopeful but tenuous process of dialogue on democratization recently begun between the government and the moderate opposition, led by the New Korea Democratic Party.
The dialogue took a major step forward last month. The two sides, after much wrangling, reached agreement in the National Assembly on the formation of a joint committee to draft an amended constitution, revamping the basic political institutions of the country. The Special Constitution Revision Committee is to negotiate an agreement on a new political system by the end of the year. The membership, aside from the chairman, is equally divided between the ruling and opposition parties.
The very fact of these negotiations, despite the distance that remains between the two sides, represents progress. Only in February, the Chun government condemned an opposition campaign to gather signatures in favor of constitutional revision as virtual ``treason.''
President Chun, who seized power in a military coup six years ago, has governed under a Constitution that provides for the election of the next president by a 5,000-member electoral college. The opposition charges that the indirect election system favors the ruling party. It demands a direct election of the president, a course Seoul's rulers say will lead to ``instability.''
Despite all this, Mr. Chun and his party have agreed not only to talks, but also to implementation of the changes before the 1988 elections. The ruling party, while still opposed to direct elections, is now talking about adopting a parliamentary system of cabinet government. Such a system, observers say, is partly aimed at preventing the election of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung to the presidency, something the military opposes.
The government's turnabout in the past few months is the result of at least two factors. One is the opposition's large political rallies throughout the country since the signature campaign began.
There is a less visible but no less important factor: the quiet pressure of American views. They have considerable weight, given the United States' continued role in guaranteeing the security of South Korea against North Korean attack. That role takes the form of US troops stationed there and an expanding level of trade and economic relations.
But US influence has its limits, particularly over strongly nationalistic elements of the South Korean military. If anything, South Koreans, particularly in opposition circles, tend to overestimate the US's power to influence the Chun government.
The limits to US influence have encouraged US officials to tread carefully in encouraging the Chun government to liberalize, while not provoking nationalistic reactions. US officials here are well aware of the delicacy of the process under way. Hence, when Secretary of State George Shultz visited in May, he went out of his way to praise the Chun government. With equal calculation, the US ambassador to Seoul, Richard Walker, invited Kim Dae Jung, for the first time, to the July 4 reception at his residence.
All this may come to naught if there is not a real effort at compromise in the negotiations. So far, even Chun's critics agree the government has shown a surprising degree of flexibility.
``Whether they [the government] will continue to be that smart remains to be seen,'' a political scientist said.
Success may also depend on the opposition's willingness to make a deal. The New Korea Democratic Party is split between followers of Kim Dae Jung and the party's other leader, Kim Young Sam. Their rivalry is well known. From all indications, Kim Dae Jung, who is an implacable foe of the military and who has remained under virtual house arrest since his February 1985 return from US exile, is unwilling to compromise on the demand for direct elections. For him, this is the only hope to gain power. Kim Young Sam, for his own reasons, has hinted at a more flexible stance, although publicly he, too, is unyielding on the direct-election issue.
The issue of a parliamentary vs. a presidential system is not really the point, a critic says. What kind of system exists, he says, is less important than whether the opposition has a fair chance to gain power through that system.
For the dialogue to succeed, according to this critic, the government -- and the military -- will have to convince the opposition parties that they are genuinely willing to allow a real change in power to take place. In the entire postwar history of South Korea, there has yet to be a peaceful transition of power.
There is one group that already doubts such a solution can be found: the student radicals. Their view was evident when a group of radicals occupied the office of a top opposition official after the agreement was reached on the formation of the constitutional committee. The opposition party had sold out, the protesters said. Presumably, equally harsh views were expressed privately by many military backers of Chun's government.
The next months will be a crucial test of the ability of middle-of-the-road South Koreans to make this attempt at true political participation succeed.