US officials hope for a free and fair election in South Korea

``We've become a very prayerful group over the past year,'' a United States specialist on Korea says, only half jokingly, ``and Wednesday we'll all be at church.'' With South Koreans going to the polls tomorrow, Washington's Korea watchers are rooting for a smooth and legitimate presidential election. US officials hope they will not have to pursue policy options that might be deemed necessary if events take a turn perceived to be contrary to democratic interests.

The Reagan administration is keeping a low profile, except to reiterate its warning that no one should interfere with the elections. Gaston Sigur, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, last Wednesday said any one who tries to ``subvert the election process or put aside the results of a fair and open selection process risks the condemnation of history, the Korean people, and the world's democratic community.''

This warning was addressed to the South Korean military, elements of which are believed to be tempted to intervene if an opposition candidate wins, and also to the opposition, which has said that if the ruling-party candidate, Roh Tae Woo, wins, the results will be illegitimate.

US specialists agree that impediments to a smooth transition include the fractious nature of Korean politics and the absence of a tradition of political compromise. Mr. Sigur urged whoever wins ``to fashion a government that evokes broad national support.'' He added that ``those who do not gain victory in fair elections still have constructive roles'' to play in successful democracies.

US officials stress US neutrality among the candidates. The choice is for the Korean people to make, they say, and the US will work with whomever is fairly elected. So far, Washington is perceived to have remained neutral, Korea watchers say.

The next challenge for the US will be to make a judgment on the fairness of the vote. US specialists foresee a number of difficult scenarios and have done a good deal of work on contingency planning. US officials decline to discuss the policy options under consideration, however.

US opinion counts heavily in South Korea, where 40,000 US troops help the country against North Korea. It is a love-hate relationship, however.

South Koreans value the US relationship for the security it provides and for the economic boom it has helped foster, experts say, but they resent the dependence caused by the division of Korea and North Korea's alliance with Moscow.

This tension in the relationship is growing, they add, as South Korea's wealth and international stature increase. This is manifested in US-Korean differences over Korea's growing trade deficit with the US, which may reach $9 billion to $10 billion this year, specialists say.

Anti-Americanism is also evident among students and opposition activists, who believe the US has been too closely associated with Korea's authoritarian military regimes and indifferent to political liberalization.

Opposition and government figures oppose US intervention in principle as demeaning, specialists say. But all the Korean actors vied for US support in recent months and will be looking for the US to help legitimize their interpretation of elections. It could be a difficult balancing act for Washington.

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