The South Korean presidential election is shadowed by the persistent fear that the powerful military will not abide by its results. The strong possibility of an opposition victory over ruling-party candidate Roh Tae Woo in Wednesday's election, has spawned a flood of rumors about Army plots.
Opposition candidate Kim Dae Jung charged Friday that he had information that ``a few Army generals'' are preparing to act during or after the vote. (Related campaign story, Page 9.)
There is no evidence, sources familiar with the South Korean military say, of actual military preparations for intervention. But the reports have been taken seriously enough to prompt US officials to reiterate American opposition to a military move. Assistant Secretary of State Gaston Sigur, in a speech on democratization in Asia, warned last week: ``We cannot foresee any circumstance under which the election would have to be postponed or canceled.''
Privately, South Korean officials have reacted angrily to the Sigur speech as favoring the opposition. ``He doesn't know what is going on here,'' said a senior Defense Ministry official. He pointed to antigovernment violence by radicals during the campaign. Mr. Sigur, he said, ``should condemn the antidemocratic, violent ... forces which are agitating to disrupt'' the process.
Korean police officials say they are preparing for attacks by radicals on voting places, including attempts to burn ballot boxes, in the event the ruling party appears to be winning. According to Korean press reports, the Minister of Defense, Chung Ho Yong, has ordered the Army onto a ``special vigil'' to be prepared for ``possible provocations by North Korea'' and ``disorder by subversive elements'' during the election period.
Officials deny, however, any military plans to intervene to change or overrule the election outcome. ``Our military is a peoples' military,'' says Hyun Hong Choo, deputy secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. ``They will respect whatever the people think is right.''
Thus the fact that military intervention would be rejected by the vast majority of South Koreans - no matter what the pretext - seems a major constraint.
``At this stage, their public policy is to accept the results,'' says a longtime observer of the Korean military. ``But it is very easy at a later stage to say the situation has changed. ... Security is a bona fide issue but they will use it for other objectives.''
The expert cites two basic factors that might tempt the military to ``veto'' the results of the election.
Firstly, since the 1961 military coup led by General Park Chung Hee, the officer corps has acquired substantial positions of power and influence throughout Korean society. Secondly, senior officers connected with the current government of President Chun Doo Hwan fear reprisals for incidents during their rule.
``The major issue,'' says the expert, ``is the survival of the society as they have known it, in which their position is secure.''
Aside from their direct role in politics, military men have spread into positions of economic leadership. According to a survey by Prof. Ahn Yong Sik of Yonsei University, half the board members of 26 government-funded firms including the major electrical utility, the largest television network, coal companies, and agricultural marketing firms, are military men. Former generals are fixtures in many large private firms as well.
The fear of reprisals is most associated with the so-called Kwangju incident of May 1980, in which military troops brutally crushed a popular revolt against martial law. Hundreds, some say more than a thousand, were killed. The issue has been a constant theme of the campaign, particularly that of Kim Dae Jung. He is the candidate most feared by the armed forces. He is considered a radical, even a ``pro-communist,'' and the man most likely to overturn their privileges.
But in recent weeks, the possibility of a military ``veto'' may have been extended to the more moderate opposition candidate Kim Young Sam as well. The reason, the longtime observer says, is Mr. Kim's threat to prosecute members of the senior military command for their involvement in an intra-military takeover in 1979.
The issue surfaced with the surprise endorsement of Kim Young Sam by former Army Chief of Staff Chung Sung Wha. Mr. Chung was arrested on Dec. 12, 1979, along with other officers, by Chun Doo Hwan, who then headed the Defense Security Command, the military's internal security arm. Candidate Roh was at that time the commander of the Army's 9th Division and his troops were used in what Chung says was an illegal Putsch. Chung was charged with involvement in the October 1979 assasination of President Park Chung Hee.
Chung has written and spoken extensively on this matter, reminding voters of Roh's military past and undermining his attempt to cultivate an image as a democrat. Support for Roh has been slipping in the last few weeks and party officials acknowledge Chung's role in this.
More seriously, Kim Young Sam's Reunification Democratic Party has issued propaganda which threatens to court martial those involved in the ``military coup.'' A leaflet passed out last week contained a list of the names of 30 military men, described as ``the key members of the Dec. 12 incident who should have been harshly punished as traitors of democracy.'' The target list includes Chun, Roh, and numerous other members of the military high command and government.
The military, analysts stress, is by no means monolithic in its views. ``There is a tremendous consensus for seeing this through to the end,'' comments one Western diplomat. ``It is a consensus supported by most soldiers.''