THE democratic opposition has won a stunning moral victory in forcing President Chun Doo Hwan to accept a direct presidential election. South Korea, as a consequence, now stands at a moment of genuine opportunity - and risk. The United States must be unwavering in its commitment to continued political reform for that vital Asian nation. The immediate policy goal for South Korea is to hold an honest and open presidential contest. For opponents of the Chun regime, as well as the majority of the South Korean people, the hard part now lies ahead: ensuring that the transition to a new government is peaceful and avoids the threat of a coup by the powerful South Korean military.
Much is still unknown about exactly what led President Chun to accept the call for a direct election and other reforms - rather than going ahead with the indirect election that he had planned and that would have ensured the continuation of his regime under his handpicked successor, Roh Tae Woo. Like Mr. Chun, Mr. Roh is a former general. Whatever the battles within the government, Roh probably aided his cause by having publicly urged Chun to accept the opposition's demands.
The ball now passes back to the opposition court. Opposition leaders face a formidable task. They must unify their highly fragmented ranks. Their first challenge remains the most crucial: whom to tap to run against Roh. Kim Young Sam is the head of the main opposition party, the Democratic Reunification Party. But Kim Dae Jung is the opposition's moral leader - a politician who, although he says he will not run this year, is believed eager to want the presidency, an office he once came close to winning.
Kim Dae Jung, however, continues to be the nemesis of many high-ranking military officers, who view him - wrongly - as an ``agent'' of North Korea. If Kim Dae Jung came close to winning, or actually won, the possibility of a coup cannot be discounted, analysts say. Kim Young Sam is more acceptable to the military. But even here, many officers would likely feel threatened by an opposition victory.
Could the opposition win? If unified, yes. The two Kims have often been rivals over the years. But pressures will now be formidable to work out a reconciliation. The opposition is expected to do well in the big cities - and South Korea is now an urban society. Moreover, many business leaders, as the street protests that have swept South Korea since June 10 have shown, are eager for a period of calm to protect the staging of the Olympics next summer. To many South Koreans, the holding of the Olympics represents their nation's economic prosperity.
Timing will now be the key. The opposition will want to move quickly to build on the momentum of the past few weeks. The government, which has a robust economy on its side, will want to slow the pace of change and keep the opposition divided.
And all this must take place in a nation that does not have a tradition of democratic elections.
For all these reasons, the US, which has 40,000 troops in South Korea, should keep up the pressure on Seoul during the weeks and months ahead to ensure that the transition to a new government is orderly and fair.
South Korea must stay on course toward political reform.