South Korea faces a critical moment in working out the peaceful transfer of power promised by President Chun Doo Hwan. Government and opposition forces seem headed for a major confrontation, and opposition leader Kim Dae Jung says he is deeply concerned.
``Only when we can impress the people that we are really nonviolent can we get the people to support our movement,'' Mr. Kim told a group of visiting American correspondents over lunch yesterday. Kim is concerned both by the increasing impatience of radical students within opposition ranks and by the harshness of government reprisals.
The climax came Oct. 30, when police stormed Konkuk University in Seoul and arrested 1,525 students from 27 universities who had occupied campus buildings. ``I was so shocked when the government called [these students] communist revolutionaries,'' Kim said. Most were arrested for violating laws banning unauthorized assemblies, but still ``all were labelled communists,'' he said. He felt he had to do something to defuse tensions and ``make a breakthrough for peace.''
After a night of prayer and reflection, he said, he decided to pledge publicly not to run for president if the government would agree to hold direct elections for the presidency, instead of the parliamentary elections it is proposing. So far, the government has refused to consider the offer. The ruling party insists that the Constitution be amended so as to turn South Korea into a British-type parliamentary democracy instead of having an American-type president chosen by direct election, as the opposition wants.
Under the present Constitution, an all-powerful president is chosen by indirect election. It is widely believed that President Chun wants a parliamentary-type government because there is no ruling-party candidate capable of beating Kim Dae Jung in a direct popular election for the presidency. Kim's pledge not to run, therefore, should relieve the ruling party of its principal concern.
Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the New Korea Democratic Party, is planning a gigantic rally Nov. 29 to highlight its demand for direct presidential elections. If the government uses force to try to prevent the meeting, another violent confrontation could take place.
Kim wants a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Chun to try to defuse tensions, since ``we share the same idea,'' he said. ``We both support democracy and a free-market economy; we both oppose communism; we both want friendly ties with the United States.''
Chun, however, steadfastly refuses to meet with Kim, whom his government once condemned to death, or to restore his civil rights. Kim is easily South Korea's most prominent opposition politician, but his legal status remains in limbo. As he wryly told the visiting journalists yesterday, since his return to Seoul from exile in the US in February l985, a police cordon has physically prevented him from leaving his home on at least 37 occasions so far. The rally planned for Nov. 29 is likely to become the 38th such occasion.
Kim said he disagrees with radical students and workers who have turned virulently anti-American, but said he understands their feelings. The government has clamped down so tightly on all forms of protest that there is no legal way in which dissatisfaction can be vented. Chun ``promised justice and a fair distribution of wealth. But in fact the concentration of wealth has sharply increased,'' he said. One American newspaper noted that 10 conglomerates account for 64 percent of South Korea's gross national product. Big firms are getting bigger every day at the expense of medium and small firms, Kim charged.
As for attitudes toward the US, Kim said, anti-Americanism has arisen because there is a perception that the Reagan administration favors the Chun administration. But the US Congress has passed a resolution calling for greater freedom in South Korea and for a direct dialogue between the opposition and the government.
If the US government moved in the direction of the resolution, Kim said, even the radical students would be impressed. Kim said he thought that Chun would use a parliamentary system of government to retain personal power even after stepping down, as he has promised, when his term ends in the spring of l988. He would remain party president, and would also become head of a presidential advisory council with strengthened powers. At present, former President Choi Kyu Hah heads the council, which plays no substantive role in government.
``In 1980 the people were silent. This time they are not.'' Kim said that when police were beating arrested students at Konkuk University last month, bystanders shouted at the police to desist - something they would not have done earlier. ``We have spent 25 years under military rule,'' Kim said. ``Our people are sick and tired. Who can say the Korean people are not qualified to practice democracy?''