Winter's arrival in South Korea is a political event. Piercing winds and bitter cold are not conducive to massive demonstrations. Thus, the success of President Chun Doo Hwan's administration in heading off the opposition's rally last weekend has given the government breathing space in which to seek a compromise. Mr. Chun probably has till spring. Will he use the time well? Washington also has a role to play. Currently, both the White House and Congress are so preoccupied with the Iran scandal that they can give only limited attention to South Korea.
Yet, the confrontation between the Chun government and the opposition is severe, and only Washington has the credentials to try to achieve a workable solution.
The purpose of the aborted opposition rally was to demand constitutional change. So far, there is no hint of compromise between the government's insistence on a British-type parliamentary system and the opposition's demand for an American-type president elected by direct popular ballot.
The real conflict, many South Korean observers believe, is between Chun's determination to retain real power - even after his promised retirement in l988 - and the opposition's conviction that its leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam would both be unbeatable candidates for the presidency - if elections are fair.
Moreover, the opposition is furious at the government's massive use of force Saturday and said yesterday that it would boycott parliament until the government apologized. The government mobilized up to 70,000 riot police to block the rally. Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam were put under temporary house arrest. Students and workers who tried to force their way to the rally site were sprayed with tear gas. And 1,500 people were arrested by the police (most were quickly discharged).
The opposition's response, given in statements by Lee Min Woo, president of the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP), was to suggest for the first time the possibility of overthrowing the government as a legitimate party goal.
But the NKDP faces a dilemma, and the government knows it. Moderate itself, the NKDP depends on increasingly radical students and workers as shock troops for its political battle against the government. If it relies too heavily on them, it risks losing the all-important support of the more moderate urban elite. But if it disavows the activists, it loses one of its main means of pressuring the government. A sit-in inside party headquarters does not attract anywhere near the public attention a huge outdoor rally does.
This is the situation that makes Washington's role crucial to a peaceful evolution in South Korea. Until its overwhelming preoccupation with the Iran affair, the Reagan administration, while supporting the Chun government against the communist North Korean regime, worked behind the scenes to keep government and opposition talking. Whenever the government arrested students, workers, or opposition politicians, Washington sought assurances that the arrests were kept to a minimum. Congress has been even more supportive of attempts to bring about a peaceful transfer of power.
Student radicals, who have turned increasingly anti-American, scorn the US role. Even Protestant and Roman Catholic churchmen express impatience over what to them is a lukewarm US attitude.
But moderate opposition leaders and representatives of the middle class who say they are ``hungry for democracy'' maintain that the US must not abandon its quiet behind-the-scenes support for democratic change. Without it, they fear, the confrontation between government and opposition may deteriorate into a paralyzing deadlock that will disrupt the economy and possibly spark a new military coup.