IT is the best and worst of times for South Korea. For the first time in 16 years, voters on the strategic peninsula are set to cast ballots for the direct election of a president, a momentous step that could pave the way for a peaceful transfer of power from military to civilian rule. But the election also is fraught with dangers that jeopardize not only the transition to democratic rule but also the stability and security of the region. Much that is vital to that nation's political and economic development and the continued strength of the United States alliance in East Asia hinges on the outcome of the Dec. 16 vote.
The challenge to Korean democracy is how to end authoritarian rule and ensure a stable transition to genuine democratic leadership by bringing about reconciliation between military and civilian leaders and overcoming regional rivalries.
The people of South Korea clearly want an end to the military dictatorship. The decision by incumbent President Chun Doo Hwan, following protracted, large-scale civil protests, to allow the election is the clearest sign that the military's rule is no longer acceptable to the electorate.
Equally clear is the general agreement that democracy is long overdue in South Korea. At the same time, the people and leaders there want social and political stability and continued economic prosperity, with a balanced sharing of benefits.
The 1988 summer Olympic Games, with South Korea as the host, have focused an international spotlight on the political process, adding a scrutiny and urgency seldom felt here.
Roh Tae Woo, the candidate of military government and a retired Army general, was designated the choice of the ruling party - the Democratic Justice Party - by incumbent President Chun Doo Hwan. A former classmate (Korean Military Academy) and confidant of President Chun, Mr. Roh served in several Cabinet positions before he was appointed chairman of the government party.
As a major general, Roh participated in the coup of 1979, which brought the current regime to power, and he was in charge of the Defense Security Command at the time of the 1980 Kwangju incident, when government troops massacred 200 civilian protesters.
His campaign, which has been hard hit by violent demonstrations whenever he has ventured into opposition territory, has been aimed at trying to distance himself from the current regime, projecting a fatherly image, and assuring voters of his ability to rein in the Army. His public appearances have been greeted by sparse to medium crowds and punctuated by hostile or sullen audiences. He has used these incidents to warn that an opposition victory would result in chaos.
But he has powerful advantages: virtually exclusive use of government-run television and the backing of government economic policy, which has been holding down inflation while increasing pork-barrel and welfare benefits for farmers, labor, and regional constituencies.
Kim Dae Jung, one of the two major opposition candidates, is the product of turbulent Korean politics. He was made prominent by the media's reporting on his repression by successive military governments, which viewed him and his followers as dangerous radicals. He claims the mantle of ``chief martyr'' in a nation that honors the unswerving commitment of the zealot and highly values personal sacrifice ``for a cause.''
He broke with the main opposition party a few weeks ago when it became clear the Reunification Democratic Party would nominate his chief rival. Kim Dae Jung has formed his own splinter group. At 63, he may well view this as his last chance. He has called for an investigation of the Kwangju incident to prosecute those responsible. He is seen by some critics as a ``populist troublemaker'' whose campaign focus has raised the specter of retaliation against the Army and whose election would, in turn, invite military retaliation. The current Army chief of staff, for example, has been widely quoted in the Korean press as warning that Kim Dae Jung's election could trigger a backlash by those who fear retaliation.
Kim Young Sam, the 59-year-old chairman and candidate of the major opposition party - the Reunification Democratic Party - campaigns on his record of government and party leadership and position as a moderate, who opposes military rule, but urges the politics of reconciliation.
Since first elected to the National Assembly as the youngest representative ever, he has served three times as the chairman of the major opposition party. He has been suppressed by both the Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan dictatorships, the latter banning him from political activity from 1980 to 1985. His strongest appeal is to Korea's middle-class voters.
His focus on reconciliation politics was sharpened recently by the endorsement of a former chief of staff of the South Korean Army, Gen. Chung Sung Hwa. General Chung was jailed during the 1979 coup that brought the current regime to power. He opposed the coup and military rule but retains considerable influence among South Korea's military leaders. His support is believed to signal that Kim Young Sam would be able to keep the Army out of politics and strengthen civilian rule.
Clearly, a unified opposition behind a single candidate would have the best chance to defeat the government party candidate. There is, therefore, an understandable concern that the split between the major opposition leaders increases the chances for a Roh Tae Woo victory.
Given the dynamics of the campaigns for the opposition candidates - the intense competitiveness and the presidential ambitions - it is quite possible there will not be a unified opposition.
Any candidate, regardless of party, must be able to demonstrate pragmatism, not zealotry, toward the national regional factions as well as the military. He must be able to show he has enough support in the Army to forestall any thoughts of a coup. Yet he must be committed to strengthening civilian rule and broadening the base of democratic support for the new government.
Part of the answer lies, I believe, in recognizing the positive contributions of the Army in defending the nation during the early 1950s and protecting the state from the northern threat, maintaining the political stability that has allowed South Korea's economic miracle.
Moreover, the regional antagonisms between the southeastern and southwestern provinces, deeply rooted in history and previous colonial rule, will play a significant role. Kim Dae Jung's base of regional strength lies in the rural, underdeveloped, and generally poorer southwestern region, while Kim Young Sam and Roh Tae Woo are from the more prosperous Southeast. These alignments fuel resentment and fear that one region will suffer under an administration headed by a leader from the rival region.
Because of these factions and factors, the outcome of the vote is difficult, at best, to predict. Whoever wins faces a herculean task of reconciliation at this critical period in the nation's development. Indeed, because of these complexities and the continuing demonstrations and campaign violence, it is even possible the election could be called off or the new government ousted in an Army coup.
The 25 million voters of South Korea face an immense challenge in a highly volatile situation at this historic crossroads. Their response will shape the future not only of their development but also their alliance with us and the region.
Ben Blaz, Guam's delegate in the US House of Representatives, is a retired Marine Corps brigadier general who served in Korea during the ``police action'' there. He sits on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs and the House Armed Services Committee.