THE South Korean ruling party's heir apparent, Roh Tae Woo, is trying to improve his image and electability. Seoul and Washington are experiencing an oddly parallel political phenomenon: the ambivalence of would-be national leaders struggling to get out from under a ``lame duck's'' wing. Mr. Roh and Vice-President George Bush - while remaining loyalists - are carefully fashioning their separate identities from the men they hope to succeed. However, unlike Mr. Bush, who can run with pride on the record he shares with President Reagan, Roh must try to put as much distance as possible between himself and President Chun Doo Hwan. Clearly, Roh has a far more difficult task before him. Complicating both men's problems is the fact that neither current officeholder fits the usual description of a lame duck in the American political lexicon. That concept is supposed to be applied to an officeholder whose successor has already won the election, producing an awkward limbo phase. United States political pundits, however, have incorrectly applied the ``lame duck'' label to President Reagan since the 1986 midterm election. The same incorrect usage has been applied to President Chun since July, when it began to appear certain that he would actually keep his frequently made pledges to step down in February 1988.
If President Reagan has proved to be a very vigorous lame duck, Mr. Chun shows no sign of limping offstage, either. Indeed, there are some who still doubt Chun's commitment to really step down on schedule, and many more who suspect he plans to remain a power behind a prospective Roh government. No comparable expectations exist in the US, making Roh's task of creating a distinct and electable political persona far more complicated than Vice-President Bush's.
If Roh is going to win in a fair election this December, he must do two things: undermine his opponents and reinforce his own position. The first half of that agenda may or may not prove feasible, but fulfilling it is not likely to cause any problems between Roh and Chun. But Roh's efforts to strengthen his own separate identity can be done only by a campaign that casts Roh as distinct from everything that makes Chun so unpopular among South Koreans.
Chun's aloof, imperious manner is being replaced by Roh's more gregarious, friendly political demeanor. Chun's austere toughness is being replaced by Roh's conciliatory approach. Beyond such atmospherics, Roh is shaping seemingly new political dimensions for South Korean democracy. Under Roh's guidance, Seoul's authoritarian regime has fostered press freedoms, permitted significant latitude for political opponents, partly acquiesced in labor's demands for a larger piece of the pie, and raised real hopes that South Korea is on the road to genuine democracy.
While there is little doubt that substantial progress toward increased pluralism has been made in Seoul, there is significant reason to doubt that true democracy is about to blossom in South Korea. Roh Tae Woo is virtually as authoritarian as Chun Doo Hwan. In a sense South Korea's ruling party is experimenting with its own political version of perestroika, with a fa,cade of glasnost. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, Roh has a nice smile, but he, too, has ``iron teeth.''
Despite the improved veneer both men have put on their leadership, neither is a tiger who has changed his stripes. In Roh's case, he clearly remains a conservative military man who wants to preserve South Korea's stability, prosperity, and discipline. Though more willing than Chun to tolerate pluralistic detours, Roh's basic orientation shows no sign of being radically different from Chun's.
Unfortunately for the prospects for Korean democracy, the putatively more democratic alternatives to Roh - Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam - are scarcely less authoritarian than Roh. Both Kims are strongly in the Confucian autocratic tradition so evident in Korean politics. So, regardless of who wins December's presidential election, Seoul is likely to remain in the hands of a group who have poorly developed tastes for the essential processes and institutions of democracy.
In this context, it is problematical whether Roh's maneuvering to portray himself as substantially different from Chun can truly be more than window-dressing. Were Roh to engage in serious attacks on the positions Chun represents, he might find himself reined in abruptly. Roh can deviate from Chun only within the limits of conservative propriety or he will risk losing the support of Chun and - more important - the military-political-business elite that sanctions Chun. This is something he cannot afford to do. Consequently, Roh confronts a ticklish task: striking a balance between being his own man and offending the man he would replace, all the while staying within the system that nurtures both of them. It remains to be seen whether he can carry out that delicate assignment in a way that will also earn him sufficient electoral support to prevail at the polls.
If Roh cannot get out from under lame duck Chun's muscular wing, or Chun decides to not waddle offstage, the political scene in Seoul could become immensely more complicated. Should the Roh-Chun team lose the election, and a much less conservative if equally autocratic Kim regime take office, there may well be a serious risk of instability. If Roh wins, with Chun as an 'eminence grise, the next regime would be on a clear continuum with the present. Such a regime would be confronted by criticism.
Should someone other than Roh win the South Korean elections, Washington will still face a serious array of economic problems in US-Korean relations, with profound implications for bilateral political and security ties. They will not go away regardless of who is in Seoul's Blue House next spring.
If Roh does not win, however, and one of the Kims can create a stable government, Washington would not have to face the question of how to cope with Chun's place in the scheme of things. Actually, in such circumstances, Chun might gain some popularity as the only South Korean president to have presided - albeit reluctantly - over a peaceful electoral transition to a civilian successor not of his choosing. But should Roh win the election and become president with Chun a behind-the-scenes power, the US will probably experience problems in coping with South Korea run by Roh. If this happens, the US will be well advised to focus narrowly on Roh as the legitimate new South Korean leader and encourage him to thoroughly distance himself from the legacy of the previous regime, minimizing - preferably eliminating - Chun's ability to cast a cloud over what could yet become a new era of Korean democracy.
Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.