When George Shultz visits Seoul next week, he may well find that South Koreans' expectations for the trip far exceed what he would like. The United States secretary of state is scheduled to stop in for six hours. His aim: to report on his five days in China, which precede his visit here, and to meet President Chun Doo Hwan and other government leaders.
But many South Koreans expect more. They are looking for evidence of US commitment to democratic reform in South Korea. President Chun has promised a peaceful transfer of power when his term expires in February 1988, an important juncture in South Korea's political development. But a government-opposition debate over what kind of government should replace Chun's - British parliamentary or American presidential - is deadlocked.
Shultz is not expected to address these issues in his short visit. But some South Koreans are watching every US move. They appear to be waiting to see if the US - which has been neutral in the government-opposition debate, only urging the two sides to reach a consensus - will move to break the deadlock.
Expectations were heightened two weeks ago, when Gaston Sigur, US undersecretary of state for Asian affairs, gave a speech in New York. He referred to South Korea's opportunity to ``civilianize'' its politics in 1988. Though the speech stressed consensus and did not suggest a course to follow, some senior opposition politicians here interpreted it as encouraging the opposition.
Three days later, James Lilley, the US ambassador to South Korea, met with opposition leaders Kim Young Sam and Lee Min Woo on consecutive days - both for the first time. He has also said that he plans to meet Kim Dae Jung, the opposition leader who is banned from political activities.
Since then, the faction-ridden New Korea Democratic Party, which Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam jointly control, has shown signs of more unity. Kim Young Sam is expected to take over formal leadership of the party at its May convention, a sign of this unity.
Washington's approach to political change here has been watched carefully. But diplomats see the perception that the Reagan administration has shown only lukewarm support for South Korean democratization as having inspired much of the anti-US feeling being vented.
Shultz's visit also comes at a time of growing tension over human rights. Tuesday is the 49th day since the death of Park Chong Cheul, a university student tortured to death by police last month. The 49th is a key religious day of mourning for Buddhists, and religious groups, dissident leaders, and opposition parties have called for a memorial rally. University students, who return to classes next week, are expected to turn out in force.
Although the government has not banned the rally, police have been put on alert. In a possible attempt to placate the public, shocked by the student's death, ruling party leader Roh Tae Woo has said he would urge the government to release a number of political prisoners on Sunday, South Korea's Independence Day.
US officials may well be pleased if the Shultz visit, at the end of a tense week, bolsters South Korean hopes for a stronger US commitment to democratization. This may reduce anti-US feeling, they say. But such a strategy could be risky, analysts say: In a country where expectations for change grow almost daily, the danger is that unrealized hopes could backfire into more bitterness.