South Korea's lurching steps toward democracy highlight the popular movements for political reform in several East Asian nations. In Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the economic miracles of the 1970s have spawned affluent middle-class populations eager for a greater voice in government. Even in China, economic decentralization has generated new prosperity and calls for political reform.
All five emerging industrial societies are outgrowing their deeply rooted Confucian political traditions, characterized by a strong authoritarian leader. The Confucian legacy helps explain the string of succession crises from Singapore to Seoul.
In attacking the legitimacy of those in power, Asian political activists - many educated in the West - are demanding more-open, pluralistic systems ensuring freedom of speech, assembly, and the press as well as other rights enjoyed in Western democracies.
``What we're seeing in South Korea is simply the Asian political problem writ large,'' said a Western diplomat with long experience in the region. ``It's not so much a question of left or right, but of political modernization - how to discard the old authoritarianism, how to decentralize power, how to write constitutions that last.''
South Koreans are out front in forcing a response to their calls for political reform. But pressure on authoritarian regimes has heightened elsewhere in the region in recent years.
In Taiwan, as in South Korea, the government has achieved striking material gains with its export-led economy by maintaining tight political controls. But faced with a popular opposition led by middle-class professionals, Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, has begun to loosen the reins of power.
The pressure for change became apparent last year, when the island erupted with the largest demonstrations in its history. To the surprise of many observers, President Chiang Ching-kuo reacted by permitting the new opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to flourish. Mr. Chiang also took steps toward ending nearly four decades of martial law and moved to prepare a succession that will not involve another East Asian ``strong man.''
Hong Kong stands only superficially outside this pattern. In many ways the British colonial administration functions within the Confucian mold of paternalistic rule, although it is more benign than its counterparts in Taiwan and South Korea.
Faced with a return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, when Britain's colonial leases expire, many Hong Kong residents view limited democracy as the only alternative to a shift from one authoritarian regime to another. Over the three years since Britain agreed to hand the colony back to China, however, Peking has vociferously opposed democratic reforms suggested by the British.
Few analysts are surprised at such resistance to change from societies deeply imbued with the Confucian tradition.
In Singapore, for instance, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew frequently invokes Confucian principles in exhorting the island nation's 2.6 million residents to eschew Western values while continuing to develop the economy into a showcase of high technology.
Highly dependent on foreign investment, Singapore's population is among the most Westernized in the region. Paradoxically, the city-state has one of the most politically resistant leaders of the postwar generation.
Many political analysts believe Mr. Lee is now grooming his eldest son, currently trade and industry minister, to assume power once Lee steps down. The rise of Lee Hsien Loong, in his mid-30s, would represent a kind of modern-day dynastic transition, much in the Confucian mold.
In China, it has been apparent for several years that Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader, is slowly attempting to provide for his succession. He has been retiring a generation of old-guard officials while strengthening government institutions and separating party and state.
Mr. Deng's aim is to create a more collegial system immune from the corruption of personality cults and excessive individual power. This would promote a younger corps of technocratic leaders who would, in turn, preserve the structure that spawned them.
Given China's fundamental commitment to communism, Dengist reforms are unlikely to produce anything approaching an open democracy. Nonetheless, Deng and his supporters appear convinced that economic reforms cannot proceed without a measure of political liberalization - and that economic progress is certain to produce demands for still more change.
In South Korea and other East Asian nations, analysts say, it would be wrong to assume that traditions will leave no mark on the evolving political systems. The model most pundits invoke is Japan, which has successfully combined elements of Western liberalism with strong leadership and government by consensus.