A turn toward democracy? South Korea's elections tomorrow are a result of a people's demand for reform

THE true test of political democracy is the willingness of those in power to hand over the control of government peacefully. Tomorrow South Koreans will try - once again - to pass that hurdle. If they succeed, it will be for the first time in their history.

Since the Republic of Korea was established in 1948, power has been relinquished only by force. In 1960, and again in 1980, fledgling attempts at establishing democratic government were foiled by military takeovers.

The generals who have ruled Korea since 1961 have brought wanted stability and remarkable economic progress. They have even allowed limited political freedom in civilianized administrations. But military leaders have not satisfied the desire for full democracy.

This election is a product of the Korean people's own insistence that their political life achieve the maturity of their economic modernization. When the military-backed government of President Chun Doo Hwan attempted to bring about a transition by means of indirect elections that effectively denied democratic choice, the people revolted.

The weeks of street protests last summer electrified not only the nation but the world. And the dramatic concessions to constitutional revision and direct election of the president was a celebration of democratic triumph.

But the bitter election campaign that has followed raises fears, never far from the surface, that the institutionalization of democracy is far from assured.

The campaign has been marked by political factionalism, intense regional rivalry, and violent disruptions of candidates' electioneering.

The divide between the opposition and the ruling party is no surprise. But it has been accompanied by an increasingly hostile contest between the two leading opposition figures, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung.

What will determine the voting of the Korean people? These are the five main factors:

Regionalism - All four major candidates have bases in distinct regions. The regional rivalry is strongest between the poorer southwest area of Cholla and the more developed southeast Kyongsong region, where economic and political power has been concentrated.

Military vs. civilian rule - The simple issue of removing Army men from their positions of power throughout the government and economic system is paramount.

Class division - Labor unrest has risen, sharpening the line between the middle class and Korean workers who feel they have not shared in the economic miracle.

Generation gap - Polling shows the younger generation is clearly in the opposition while those over 50 favor the present government.

The power of government - Many Koreans will respond to the influence of the government officialdom, which penetrates down to the household level.

The close three-way contest between the ``two Kims'' and ruling party leader Roh Tae Woo (with a fourth major candidate, Kim Jong Pil, far behind) has made the outcome highly unpredictable.

There is little disagreement that if the two Kims had united on a single opposition candidacy, they would easily win the election. With the opposition vote divided between two candidates, the victor will almost certainly gain only a plurality, perhaps as low as a third of the vote.

The victor will face the immediate difficulty of establishing legitimacy and of reassuring the supporters of his opponents that he will represent them as well.

This task will be most difficult in the event of a victory for Mr. Roh, and to a lesser extent for Kim Dae Jung.

A narrow Roh victory will be suspect to many opposition followers who already charge the government with preparing fraud, something that has occurred frequently in the past in Korea. Korean analysts expect the streets to be filled with student protesters, and others, and the country returned to even worse turmoil than last summer.

Kim Dae Jung, on the other hand, is widely viewed as the most radical of the major candidates. In military circles, Mr. Kim is often referred to as ``pro-communist.'' The military, it is said, will ``veto'' a Kim victory, especially one with minority backing.

The ``safe'' course, many believe, is a Kim Young Sam victory. Mr. Kim's moderate pragmatism offers both change and stability, reassuring to Korea's growing middle class.

The victory would have to be accepted by Kim Dae Jung's fervent supporters and by many of Roh's backers, especially if Kim offers a conciliatory hand to the military soon after the vote.

The most pessimistic possibility is that post-election unrest might lead to renewed military intervention. Still, it is difficult to foresee circumstances under which military rule would have legitimacy for the vast majority of Koreans.

More optimistically, the election might produce a clear victor, one widely accepted. At the least, the Korean people are likely to see that the exercise of democratic rights, even if accompanied by difficulties, is compatible with stability and continued economic progress.

The major contenders and where they stand Kim Young Sam, Reunification Democratic Party

Kim Young Sam is a veteran opposition politician known for his moderate pragmatism. He was educated at the elite Seoul National University. A Presbyterian elder, Mr. Kim became South Korea's youngest legislator when he won a National Assembly seat in 1954 at the age of 24. He contested Kim Dae Jung for the opposition party presidential nomination in 1971, part of a long rivalry.

Kim has been detained numerous times for opposition to the military-backed regimes of Park and Chun Doo Hwan. In 1974, he was president of the New Korea Democratic Party, the main opposition party at that time. In 1979, he was expelled from the National Assembly, spurring revolts against the government. Following the military takeover in 1980, Kim was barred from political activity though still managing to lead the main opposition.

Kim shares Kim Dae Jung's long history of struggle for political and human rights but not his radical image. He is viewed as a less doctrinaire politician, willing to compromise. His campaign has attracted the backing of senior retired military figures opposed to the current government.

Kim's image has strengthened his appeal to those of Korea's growing middle class who want an end to military role in politics but also seek stability to continue economic growth. Kim's middle-class base also includes strength among the large Protestant population. He should do well, probably ahead of all others, in the capital of Seoul.

Kim's strongest base, as with the other candidates, his home region (for him, Kyongsong, particularly South Kyongsong). This province includes the industrial port of Pusan, the country's second-largest city, and other major industrial centers.

Kim Jong Pil, New Democratic Republican Party

Politician Kim Jong Pil is considered the spoiler among the major candidates. Though the former prime minister has no chance of victory, he commands a solid 5 to 10 percent of the vote, most of which would otherwise go to the ruling party.

Mr. Kim is the inheritor of the political machine created by the late President Park Chung Hee. Kim was an architect of the ``May Revolution'' of 1961, the takeover by Park and a group of young nationalist Army officers. He was the first director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.

Kim was a key figure in the economic development policies of the Park era, which transformed South Korea from a poor, agricultural nation into a modern industrialized economy and major trading power. He promises to continue those policies.

Kim has a reputation as Korea's most able and intelligent politician. He appeals to some conservative elements of Korea's middle class. His main base of support is, typically, in his home province of South Chunchon, particularly in the major city of Taejon.

Kim Dae Jung, Party for Peace and Democracy

Kim Dae Jung is South Korea's most charismatic opposition leader, active in politics since 1948.

In 1971, Mr. Kim ran against former Gen. Park Chung Hee as the opposition candidate in Korea's last direct elections for president, gaining 46 percent of the vote, despite evidence of fraud on Park's part. In 1973, Kim was kidnapped by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) while in exile in Tokyo and spent much of the 1970s in and out of jail. Kim was arrested and sentenced to death for allegedly fomenting a May 1980 rebellion in Kwangju that was brutally crushed by the military.

Because of United States pressure, Kim was allowed to go into exile in the US in 1983. He returned to Korea in 1985, spending most of the time under house arrest until this past summer.

Kim is a devout Roman Catholic, espousing liberal democracy, social welfare, and a free-market economy. In the Korean context, however, he has a reputation as a radical, feared by the military and many middle-class voters. Although he has tried to moderate that image, his appeal is still greatest with the dissident movement, including human-rights activists, and with students, organized labor, and lower-income voters.

Kim's strongest support is in North and South Cholla, his home region. He will probably receive 80 to 90 percent of the Cholla vote. He is expected to do well in Seoul and Kyonggi Province.

Roh Tae Woo, Democratic Justice Party

Roh Tae Woo is the handpicked successor of President Chun. The two men were classmates at the Korea Military Academy, graduating in 1955 and rising together through the ranks.

On Dec. 12, 1979, General Roh, 9th Division commander, backed General Chun in seizing control of the military after the assassination in October of President Park by the head of the KCIA. In May 1980, Roh commanded the capital garrison when Chun seized full power.

Following Chun's assumption of the presidency, Mr. Roh resigned from the military and served in several Cabinet positions. In June, Roh became the ruling-party candidate to succeed Chun after a decision to abort constitutional reform talks with the opposition. After weeks of mass protest, Roh made a historic speech on June 29, conceding major reforms, including direct presidential elections.

Since then, Roh has worked hard to dissociate himself from the widely unpopular Chun. He has promised continued democratization and economic reforms, while emphasizing stability.

The ruling party has traditional strength among certain groups of voters. The farming population, 20 percent of the total populace, is the base of the ruling party. In urban areas, Roh has strength among conservative middle-class voters and less-educated, low-income workers.

Roh personally has a regional base in North Kyongsong Province, where the major city of Taegu, his hometown, is situated. Presidents Chun and Park are also from Taegu. In addition, Roh is expected to dominate the relatively sparsely populated province of Kangwon, which borders North Korea and is strongly anticommunist; the island province of Cheju; and North Chunchon Province.

Two other candidates are in the race: Kim Son Jok, Ilche (United) Democratic Party and Shin Jeong Yil, Hanist Unification Korea Party. Hong Sook Ja, the female candidate of the Social Democratic Party, withdrew in support of Kim Young Sam. Paek Ki Won, a prominent antigovernment dissident running as an independent, also pulled out. Mr. Paek had a strong radical student following.

Passing the reins: it's rarely gentle

May 1948 - Elections for National Assembly held in South under UN supervision.

July 1948 - Syngman Rhee elected President by National Assembly.

August 1948 - Republic of Korea formally established in South.

August 1950 - After losses in Assembly election, Rhee declares martial law and alters Constitution to elect president by direct vote.

1952, 1956 - Rhee reelected.

1960 - Rhee reelected with widespread fraud. Student revolt follows, 142 students killed by police, and Rhee resigns April 27. Civilian constitutional government established under President Yun Po Sun.

May 1961 - Military coup led by Maj. Gen. Park Chung Hee overthrows parliamentary government.

October 1963 - Park narrowly defeats former President Yun in presidential elections, receiving 46.6 percent, against Yun's 45.1 percent. Fraud widely suspected.

May 1967 - Park defeats Yun, with 51.4 percent of vote.

1969 - National Assembly amends Constitution, removing two-term restriction on presidency.

1971 - Park narrowly defeats Kim Dae Jung, who charges defeat due to fraud.

1972 - Park declares martial law, promulgates Yushin Constitution with indirect election of president and no limit on terms in office.

October 1979 - Park assassinated by head of Korean Central Intelligence Agency.

December 1979 - Gen. Chun Doo Hwan stages intramilitary takeover.

May 1980 - Martial law declared.

August 1980 - Chun declared President by indirect vote.

June 1987 - After widespread protest, Chun government agrees to restore direct election of president.

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