South Korea: Could a coup still occur?

THE let up in recent political unrest in South Korea - over this past weekend at least - does not preclude the possibility of another military coup. In the wake of President Chun Doo Hwan's aborting the existing processes of constitutional revision in April and naming his successor, Roh Tae Woo, in June, those in opposition to him have accelerated their efforts to oust Mr. Chun. South Korean politics today are marked by more than their usual quotient of confrontation. The newly formed breakaway main opposition party, the Democratic Reunification Party (DRP), is strident in its uncompromising demands for rapid democratic reforms that would enable a completely civilian administration to replace the latest of the military-supported regimes that have run South Korea since Park Chung Hee's 1961 coup. Kim Young Sam, the DRP's head, and Kim Dae Jung, Korea's most prominent advocate of democracy, lead a bitter struggle to overthrow Chun.

That struggle has long been waged partly on the campuses of Korea, where many Utopian students pursue a self-proclaimed romanticist mission as the conscience of their nation's repressed freedom.

Since the June 10 official selection of Mr. Roh as the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, the campuses and main streets of Seoul and other major cities have been racked by turmoil. Korean dissidents clearly feel that time is on their side. They are encouraged by the combination of momentum spilling over from Cory Aquino's ``people power'' movement in the Philippines, widespread international criticism of the Chun regime's repressive ways, some hopes that the Reagan administration might put teeth into its recently improved rhetoric by backing the democratic cause in a showdown, and - most important - confidence that the deadline imposed by the 1988 Seoul Olympics will work in their favor by compelling Chun's regime to back down and compromise on pluralistic terms so that the games will not be jeopardized.

Because of democratic successes in the Philippines and a series of Latin American countries, all of which turned their backs on dictatorships, there is an implicit assumption in much Western coverage of events in Korea that democratic forces can be victorious in Seoul, too, if they receive appropriate and persistent foreign encouragement. United States press reportage and analysis of events in Korea often convey a sense of guilt arising from American responsibility for the Republic of Korea as a state and for the growth of militaristic elements at the helm in Seoul. Both of these factors lend a degree of spurious self-fulfilling prophecy to many American expectations regarding Korean politics. Actually, despite hopes in the US and Korea, there is no reason to believe that Seoul's authoritarian rulers will topple like a domino from the momentum of events elsewhere.

Despite their fluctuations between hard-line crackdowns and shows of flexibility, the inertia of their grip on power is tremendous and not easily shaken. Neither will US self-recrimination over alleged causality in South Korea's political troubles significantly contribute to resolving them. The evolution of Korean politics is largely independent of events elsewhere, and US influence over that process is marginal today and decreasing. Just as the Korean opposition is nationalistic, frequently to the extent of paranoid xenophobia, so too is the ruling elite highly nationalistic and deeply suspicious of foreign pressures. Neither those in power nor those who thirst for it are amenable to foreign interlopers. Americans must bear this reality in mind.

What, then, might we expect as the opposition persists in its efforts to oust Chun? If that effort could be brought back to a level of civil discourse and meaningful negotiation, as the Reagan administration now urges, hope remains that some sort of political deal might be cut between the rival groups. There is always some chance of this happening. But the prospects for such a deal are dim. South Korea faces a period of escalating violence. If the Chun government can keep its opponents sufficiently off balance, under control for a few months, and can minimize their impact on domestic and foreign perceptions of the regime's instability, it might be able to work its way out of the trouble it is in. Unfortunately for the Seoul leadership, however, measures it takes to assuage the violence are often seen as signs of weakness by the perpetrators of such acts, egging them on to further test the will of those they are seeking to overthrow. This action-reaction relationship has an unraveling cyclical quality, with ominous portents.

The clear danger in this emerging scenario is that the military, whose behind-the-scenes presence sustains Chun, will tire of these political machinations. The Republic of Korea military has a track record of distrusting signs of wavering in the face of domestic and US pressures. It, too, tends to see these signs as a demonstration of weakness which some in the military may seek to rectify. Many in the opposition seem ready to assume that the threat of allowing political unrest to jeopardize the Olympics is overpowering leverage for their side, making it unthinkable that a truly severe crackdown can be carried out. Up to some ill-defined point that logic is persuasive.

There is a threshold, however, at which the wielders of armed power will interpret the threat of public disorder (and its implications for national security vis-`a-vis North Korea) to be so serious that they will feel compelled to do one of two things: declare martial law or wage another coup. If pressed to the wall, the Chun government may risk imposing martial law, hoping to quell the unrest and provide enough stability to ensure safety during the Olympics. It has given not-so-veiled public hints that such a move might be in the offing.

If the unrest were to become sufficiently serious, declaring martial law might become the surest vehicle for self-preservation by the Chun government. It would be a lesser evil, from Seoul's perspective. If Chun cannot do the basic job of maintaining domestic order that is a prerequisite for sustaining South Korea's economy and defenses - much less the Olympic icing on Korea's cake - then someone else will probably arise from the military's ranks to do the job for him. It is crucial to remember that student activists are not the only sector of South Korean society motivated by a self-imposed sense of conscience and responsibility for national well-being and freedom. The military's ethos, though marching to a different drummer, imbues some of its leaders with a duty to step in to rescue civilians from themselves.

Consequently, as we look to South Korea's increasingly shaky future, there may be another coup in the works. In this context, no one should be lulled by the false feeling of immunity from armed intervention suggested by the Olympics' significance for Korea. That protective scenario cannot be the opposition's ace in the hole, shielding it from retaliation, because for the military the threat from North Korea remains primary - and stabilizing the home front remains essential. These priorities will legitimize for any potential coupmakers whatever armed or legal measures they decide to undertake. This prospect makes the situation in Seoul all the more ominous for South Korea and serious for US policy toward that country.

Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif. -30-{et

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