South Korea's immediate political future rests on the outcome of a summit to be held this morning between President Chun Doo Hwan and opposition leader Kim Young Sam. Both men are under pressure to produce solid evidence that the talks will bring real concessions, leading to resumed political dialogue.
A failure to produce results seems likely to trigger an escalation of the turmoil and violence that have dominated Korean life for the past two weeks.
While the politicians were maneuvering in downtown Seoul, approximately 20,000 students from more than 25 campuses gathered at Yonsei University.
Filling a huge grass amphitheater in disciplined rows, they chanted antiregime and anti-American slogans, applauding the militant words of their leaders.
``We warn the Reunification Democratic Party [RDP - the main opposition party], if the result of that negotiation does not meet the peoples' desire for democracy, then they will lose their support completely,'' declared a leader from Korea University.
Not far from the university, opposition leader Kim Dae Jung remained under house arrest, awaiting release, a possible consequence of the meeting.
The opposition had originally demanded his release as a precondition for the talks, along with the freeing of several hundred political prisoners arrested since the wave of demonstrations began on June 10. That demand, however, was dropped, with the clear belief that it will occur shortly after the meeting, according to an RDP spokesman. ``The meeting itself is a good thing,'' Kim Dae Jung said in a telephone interview. (No one is allowed in to see him). Still, Mr. Kim continued, ``I don't know whether President Chun will make real concessions for our people to satisfy their strong desire for democracy.''
Kim cited two criteria for success. First, as all opposition elements demand, the withdrawal of Mr. Chun's April 13 decision to suspend talks on a new constitution and to hold elections in February of next year under the existing system. (These elections seem certain to perpetuate military-backed rule.) Second, to hold a popular referendum on what kind of system should be created. (Kim favors direct presidential elections.)
The ultimate intentions of Chun, a retired Army general who has ruled since 1980, are unclear.
For the first time in the crisis, Chun spoke yesterday, telling reporters that the problems should be solved through ``dialogue and compromise.'' At the same time, he warned that continuing unrest would be ``an intolerable national crime.''
Chun is under pressure from within his own ruling Democratic Justice Party. The proposal for the meeting with the opposition came out of an unusual party caucus this past Sunday at which party leaders debated the crisis.
According to partial transcripts of the meeting reported in the Korean press, there was a strong consensus in favor of conciliation, even resumption of talks on the Constitution. The party president and official candidate to succeed Chun, Roh Tae Woo, carried these proposals to Chun.
The quiet urgings of United States officials for a resumption of political dialogue are also being felt. US Ambassador James Lilley met with Kim Young Sam for more than two hours yesterday discussing the upcoming summit, according to an RDP spokesman. Mr. Lilley was joined at the end by Assistant Secretary of State Gaston Sigur, who had just arrived in South Korea.
Mr. Sigur is meeting a wide range of government and opposition figures in what is billed as a high level fact-finding mission on the Korean crisis.
The US is under fire from oppositionists - not only from radical students but also from moderate middle-class elements, for backing the military regime.
``This is the time for the American government to definitely change its attitude,'' Kim Dae Jung said. He denied any desire for the US to intervene in the political crisis. Rather, he said, ``what we are asking America is to make its attitude clear.''
These expectations may be linked in the minds of many Koreans to their hopes for new dialogue. US officials, while endorsing broad goals of dialogue and democracy, have avoided any impression of a tilt towards the opposition. The effect, in many Korean eyes, is often to favor the regime.
The students, who chanted ``Yankee Go Home'' with unconcealed fervor, have no doubt of American intentions. ``By sending Sigur, the US is again trying to manipulate our internal affairs,'' a student leader said toward the crowd. ``Democracy in Korea should be established by the Korean people themselves.''
The next few days may tell a great deal about the prospects for that desire.