The past week might easily have brought a major political crisis with escalating violence and bloodshed in South Korea. Instead, it produced a meeting between the heads of government and the political opposition that at least staved off a resort by the government to martial law. Washington had intervened. It sent the State Department's East Asian expert, Assistant Secretary Gaston Sigur, to Seoul. Mr. Sigur arrived Tuesday. On Wednesday, President Chun Doo Hwan received Kim Young Sam, a leader of the political opposition, at the presidential palace amid talk of ``dialogue and compromise.''
There was relief in Washington, where there had been weeks of anxiety as political unrest in South Korea fueled growing street demonstrations and battles with the police. Washington faced the possibility of having to intervene as it had in both Haiti and the Philippines.
But there could still be plenty of trouble before South Korea regains internal political tranquility. The talks between Mr. Chun and Mr. Kim did not go well, and opposition groups have called for a popular ``peace march'' to take place today in protest.
Yet Washington's anxiety over South Korea is about the damage that could be done by internal disorder. It is not related to any danger of South Korea going communist.
There has been some anti-Americanism in the street demonstrations because the opposition tends to assume that Washington supports the, by now, unpopular Chun regime. But there is no significant communist element in the opposition, no significant communist movement in South Korea.
This is merely one example of how the world has changed since the early post-World War II years, when communist parties existed around the world and seemed to be within reach of power in many countries. In those days some 40 years ago - at the beginning of the ``cold war'' and of Washington's commitment to the doctrine of ``containment'' - communism seemed to be gaining in appeal everywhere.
Where is it active and advancing today?
Once Washington had reason to worry about what might happen in Italy and France. The communist parties were powerful in both countries.
Italy held an election June 14 and 15. The Communist Party could once count on a third of the electorate - in 1976 they won 34.4 percent of the vote. This time they had hoped to regain lost momentum, but instead, they slipped by 3 percentage points to 26.2 percent. The Communists had hoped to be strong enough to become part of a coalition government. But it was the Christian Democrats and Socialists that improved their positions.
In last year's French elections, the Communists dropped to 9.8 percent of the vote and ended up with 35 seats in the National Assembly. The Socialists won 215 seats, and the two main conservative parties took 277 seats and control of the government. With less than 10 percent of the vote, communism seems to have lost its political relevance in France.
Where is communism advancing?
Central America is sometimes called today's breeding ground of communism. It is still firmly established in Cuba. Marxism is a force within Nicaragua's Sandinista government. It is also a factor in El Salvador's rebel movement.
In South America, a Maoist-inspired insurgency is a destabilizing factor in Peru, but the Shining Path guerrillas have no relation to external communist organizations. In Chile, the radical wing of the Communist Party has gained strength from the authoritarian government's unwillingness to move effectively toward democracy. There is no growing communist movement elsewhere in Latin America today.
China and Egypt were once part of the Soviet military system. Both have since gone their own ways and have, in effect, become military associates of the West. China retains its own brand of communism.
Yugoslavia was once a member of the Soviet bloc, but went its independent way in 1948. It is now protected by the West from Soviet threats, though still nominally communist.
Forty years ago, the statesmen of Washington, London, and other leading democracies operated on the assumptions that communism was advancing everywhere and that almost any rising opposition to existing authority meant the possibility of that country going communist. It seemed to be the only visible alternative.
More recently, in 1979, there was a violent revolution in Iran. The result was Islamic fundamentalism, the antithesis of communism. The old Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines was replaced in 1986 by the more democratic Aquino government, which practices a more reputable form of capitalism than existed under the Marcos regime. (The Philippines does face a communist insurgency, however.)
Marxist economics and Soviet imperialism once seemed to march hand in hand. They have parted company in China, Egypt, and Yugoslavia. Soviet imperialism reached its high point in the mid-1950s, when both China and Eqypt were Soviet allies. But Soviet troops and technicians left China in 1960 and Egypt in 1972. Since 1972, Moscow's main allies in the outside world have been Vietnam, Cuba, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique.