The next President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) will almost certainly be Roh Tae Woo, chairman of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. Whether Mr. Roh, a retired four-star general, will achieve legitimacy in the eyes of an unmistakeable majority of his countrymen is another matter. A high-ranking Western source who has been involved with Korean politics for many years says that formidable obstacles stand in the way.
The Democratic Justice Party (DJP) is scheduled to name Roh its candidate for the presidency at a national convention here June 10. But Roh has already cleared the essential first hurdle: on Tuesday he received dour President Chun Doo Hwan's personal accolade.
``Let me recommend ... chairman Roh who is knowedgeable in security affairs and has a wide experience in administrative affairs,'' a news agency quoted the President as saying.
Under the indirect election system prescribed by the present Constitution, Roh is considered a shoo-in to succeed Mr. Chun come Feb. 24, l988.
But the controversy about his government's legitimacy, that has dogged Chun's seven years in power, will continue into the Roh era and diminish the effectiveness of his government unless obstacles cited by the Western source are somehow surmounted. These obstacles are: first, that Roh comes from the same military background as Chun; second, that an indirect election under the present Constitution will not give Roh the popular mandate he needs; third, that the opposition continues to demand constitutional revision for direct 1987 elections.
In short, the opposition rejects both President Chun's April 13 statement deferring constitutional reform until after the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and Roh's personal promise that once the Olympics are over, constitutional reform, in consultation with opposition parties, will be at the top of his agenda.
The Reunification Democratic Party (RDP), the largest opposition party, has already castigated the Roh nomination as ``the first act of a political scenario aimed at eternalizing the current dictatorial regime.''
Other opposition groups, made up of students, religious leaders, and intellectuals, oppose elections under the present Constitution. They plan national protests to coincide with the DJP convention June 10. And, as the government will no doubt deploy massive police power to prevent such movements, tensions are bound to rise.
Opposition activists recall that Roh and Chun were classmates at the Korean Military Academy, and co-leaders of the l979 coup that brought Chun to power. They note that Roh was one of the inner circle of decisionmakers involved in the so-called Kwangju massacre of May 1980, when hundreds - some say thousands - were killed. In short, they say, Roh can no more be separated from Chun than a man can from his shadow.
Opinion is divided among Korea-watchers as to whether positive factors involved in Roh's nomination outweigh the negative. Those who incline to accentuate the positive say that Roh shows much greater flexibility than Chun and has gotten along with opposition legislators as well as with DJP stalwarts. His attitude towards Kim Dae Jung, chief opposition leader now under a form of house arrest, is scarcely less compromising than that of Chun himself. But he has shown himself open to the idea of a meeting with RDP President Kim Young Sam.
Meanwhile, there is so little trust between the DJP and the RDP and other opposition groups that very few people among the opposition accept Roh's conciliatory remarks at face value. Somehow Roh must convince the opposition of his bona fides, of his genuine desire to move from ``we-know-best'' authoritarianism toward participatory, pluralistic democracy.