US relieved over Korean election, but still holding its breath

Washington is reacting with cautious optimism to the presidential election in South Korea. The key questions are how much voter fraud there was and how the Korean people respond to opposition charges that the government stole the election, experts say. Initial reports that voting irregularities were minimal were greeted with relief, but those reports have yet to be confirmed.

State Department spokesman Charles Redman congratulated the victor, Roh Tae Woo, but refrained from comment on the charges of vote fraud. Mr. Redman said it was up to the Korean people to sort out those charges, but the US hoped this would be done quickly, fairly, and by peaceful means.

He also praised Mr. Roh for his victory statement, in which he pledged to seek national reconciliation and to take into account the opinions of all Koreans as he governs.

Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York, chairman of the House East Asia subcommittee, issued a similarly hedged statement of support. He has called hearings today at which he will seek the administration's view on the charges of voting irregularities.

Asian specialist Alain Romberg says popular Korean perception of the election's fairness will be important. Mr. Romberg, who is the senior Asian specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, expects there will be street demonstrations by students supporting the opposition's charges of fraud. But if the wider public does not join in, he says, the results will stick and the United States will not have to face the toughest choices.

Working on the side of minimizing violence, Romberg says, will be the perception that the ``two Kims'' - the opposition candidates - did themselves in by failing to unite.

In addition, Roh is perceived by Koreans to be more committed to democracy than current President Chun Doo Hwan, says Prof. Eugene Kim, a Korea specialist at Western Michigan University.

Paul Kriesberg, Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Roh's 10 percentage point lead - representing 2 million votes - makes the odds that he won by packing the ballot boxes relatively small.

Even if the middle class accepts the results, Mr. Kriesberg says, it will still be important that the government not create martyrs by using lethal force against student protests. If Roh can use his influence to win police restraint in controlling the demonstrations, he says, it will bolster his legitimacy.

Professor Kim says the election is only a step toward full democracy. Koreans still need to demonstrate that they know how to win and lose democratically, he says. Many specialists say the transition will be difficult because of Korea's history of authoritarianism, its lack of a tradition of compromise, and suspicion between pro-government and opposition forces.

If serious electoral flaws do emerge or protests multiply, the US will be faced with the challenge of how to use its leverage in Korea. The US can have a great deal of impact in minimizing violence, Kriesberg says. If it continues to look like a relatively fair election, he hopes a range of US political and religious leaders will make clear to the Korean opposition that it should avoid violence. The Reagan administration has been stressing that both sides need to accept the electoral results if the vote is fair.

If widespread vote fraud is discovered, the US has a range of options to show its displeasure, specialists say. It is doubtful, Romberg says, that the US will raise doubts about its military commitment to South Korea. Specialists agree this would be too heavy-handed and, combined with disorder in Korea, could encourage North Korea to intervene.

The US could also react with economic and trade sanctions, specialists say. This would find favor with some in Congress and with people in the administration already upset over Korea's large trade surplus with the US and what they see as Korea's unfair trade practices. Nevertheless, specialists and officials say the most likely initial step would be political signals of displeasure.

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