Fanning the spark

IN the waning months of its office, the Reagan administration can look with some satisfaction on two major successes in Asia. The first is the ousting of discredited Ferdinand Marcos from the presidency of the Philippines, and the installation of Corazon Aquino. Mrs. Aquino has had her ups and downs. The future is not all rosy.

But still, Mrs. Aquino has survived, and the long-term outlook for the Philippines after the revolution wrought by people power is much brighter than it was under the corrupt regime of President Marcos.

The United States was a little slow to perceive the dangers inherent in the lingering Marcos regime. In the last year of the Marcos regime, however, the US more than made up for its initial insensitivity to trends. Washington was up to its elbows in Filipino politics, and clearly played a major role in persuading Marcos to step down. But of course the real impetus came from the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who took to the streets in dramatic protest against Marcos. This mass eruption of emotion neutralized the Army, and the jig was up for Ferdinand and Imelda.

The second successful outcome is in South Korea. This story is not yet over. Radical students are already gobbling up each concession from the ruling regime and demanding more. If their pressure should become too intense, a wary cabal of military officers might yet seize power to maintain right-wing ``order.''

Meanwhile the always-evident strains in the faction-bedeviled opposition are becoming more evident as the scent of possible electoral victory becomes stronger. So we are not seeing a trouble-free, overnight transition to democracy.

But still, what we have seen is dramatic enough. President Chun Doo Hwan has made what are, in Korean terms, some remarkable concessions. Roh Tae Woo, the former general tapped to succeed Mr. Chun when he steps down next year, has plunged daringly into democratic politicking. If things stay on track, we could see a reasonably clean election this year, with power going fairly to either side.

The US role in South Korea has been markedly different from the US role in the Philippines. And with good reason. The two countries are very different, and the situations are very different.

The Philippines had an economy on the brink of disaster, a virtual dictatorship riddled with corruption on a mind-boggling scale, and an Army in disarray facing a communist guerrilla movement. South Korea has one of the most robust economies in Asia. Its regime has been much criticized and has some taint of corruption, but on nothing like the Filipino scale. Its Army is tough and well drilled; it faces a real threat from North Korea, one of the meanest and most unpredictable states in the communist array.

If the US had tried to change the government in South Korea, it would have gotten a political thick ear. What it did was to make ostentatiously clear its support for reform and movement toward democracy, leaving the choice of government to the Korean people. Privately, the US used its influence to head off negative developments - such as a government assault on the Roman Catholic cathedral in Seoul; the imposition of some form of martial law; and the injection of military forces into what was primarily police action against demonstrators.

The two different American approaches underline the need for careful, case-by-case handling as the United States laudably encourages the spread of democracy around the world. There are those who now want the US to transform Panama and Haiti and Taiwan. (Curiously, the calls are more muted for transformation in Nicaragua, and Cuba, and Libya, and Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.)

But there is no pat formula. Occasionally, the US may have the opportunity for outright removal of a totally despicable regime. More generally, the US role will be to nudge, to demonstrate by example, and to encourage the flickering flame of freedom among the people from whom the main impetus for change must come.

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