S. Koreans hit campaign trail. Public and military cast wary eye on maneuvers of leading presidential candidates

Campaigning in South Korea's presidential election has started in all but name. Probable opposition candidate Kim Dae Jung is on a sentimental journey to his home province of South Cholla, where huge crowds are expected to greet him. Ruling party candidate Roh Tae Woo is launching his campaign, in effect, in Washington, where he will meet leaders next week.

Continuing - but apparently diminishing - labor unrest could upset the timetable, particularly if radical students manage to make common cause with the workers. To head off any such possibilities, the government has been cracking down hard on what it calls ``disguised workers'' - former students who have gotten blue-collar jobs by concealing their backgrounds.

The labor troubles, frequently violent and highly confrontational, are one reason for growing public unease about social stability, a concern that could play into the hands of government hardliners, including, it is said, President Chun Doo Hwan himself.

With the election only a few hundred days away, according to the current timetable, the government and the opposition are battling for voter support. The ruling party asserts that, having conceded both the principle and the practice of democratic elections, it has the competence and experience required to keep the Korean economy growing despite a difficult global environment. The opposition shouts that the only way to establish democracy firmly is to vote against the government and for the opposition.

Kim Dae Jung's visit to South Cholla, his first in 16 years, undoubtedly calls attention to his record as a fighter for democracy and to the years he spent in prison, in exile, or under house arrest.

Mr. Roh's visit to Washington is probably designed to reemphasize the ruling party president's role in defusing South Korea's most serious political crisis since the 1979 assassination of President Park. It was Roh's June 29 proposal for direct presidential elections, a proposal quickly accepted by Mr. Chun, that opened the way to the constitution-revising and election-holding process now under way.

Roh is bound to win plaudits in Washington for his courage and dedication to democratic ideals, and televised reports showing the praise being heaped on him are certain to have their effect here.

Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung's rival to become the party's sole presidential candidate, continues to call for the opposition candidacy question to be settled quickly, while Kim Dae Jung's tactic is to keep the decision in suspense as long as possible.

There is a growing possibility that a third Kim, former Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil, will enter the presidential race. Some sources close to J.P., as the third Kim is known, believe he may announce his candidacy next week. J.P., who masterminded his kinsman Park Chung Hee's military coup of 1961, served as prime minister under President Park, but was purged after Chun came to power in May 1980.

Most observers give J.P. little chance of winning. But he is a formidable intellect and a seasoned debater. He could probably match campaign wits with Kim Dae Jung better than could either Roh or Kim Young Sam, say veteran Korean journalists.

And in this particular election, his advantage is that he is from neither Kyongsang or Cholla - two regions that have historically battled each other for leadership over South Korea. J.P.'s home province is Chunchon, and his candidacy could provide an alternative to voters tired of regional rivalries.

Finally, the public remains aware that circumstances could yet arise and create another scenario - not democratic elections, but a new military assertion of power. During the height of last week's labor violence in Ulsan, there were rumors that Chun was close to putting the country under garrison command rule - a step whereby the military would take over some of the police's security functions, but without assuming total civil powers, as under martial law.

Within radical groups, particularly among students, there are many who feel that Roh's June 29 proposal cheated them out of the revolution toward which they were heading. These groups look on worker unrest as a means of bringing about the revolutionary changes they demand. To the military officer corps, such groups are dangerously subversive, and the more they conspicuously agitate, the likelier the prospect of a military crackdown.

Optimists argue that after overwhelming evidence last June of the middle class's demand for free, fair elections, not even military hardliners would dare to openly thwart the public will. But some of them would like to take out an insurance policy just the same. That insurance lies in promoting candidacies other than that of Kim Dae Jung, on the grounds that - rightly or wrongly - Kim is perceived as a closet radical and the military would not tolerate his election victory.

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