NATIONS, like their peoples, change. A nation is born, passes through infancy, and, with the confidence of experience, matures into adulthood. Some nations never make the transition from one phase to another. For one reason or another, development stalls.

South Korea is not one of those nations. Rather, it is a picture of breathtaking change.

In the short span of 2 decades, this Asian nation has gone from poverty to budding economic power. In a generation, its people have moved from rice paddies and tile-roofed farmhouses to factories and apartment blocks.

This past year, South Korea has attempted the most dangerous and demanding change of all - becoming a democratic country.

Spurred by the massive protests of students backed by the middle class and poor, Koreans have thrown off most of the restraints of military-dominated rule, which they had lived under for 27 years.

Since last summer's street revolts, the turbulent process of change has only accelerated. Students continue to battle police in the name of redressing the oppression of the past. Workers are flexing newly won rights of unionism by demanding a bigger share of the economic miracle they wrought. Democratic elections have forced South Korea's ruling elite to bow to losing their absolute powers. The economy continues its dazzling growth.

Those who have observed Korea closely during this period have watched a nation struggle with that passage into adulthood. The process of democrati-zation can still be reversed. But there is no question that Korea is a nation coming of age.

From Sept. 17 to Oct. 2, the entire world will witness its emergence when Seoul hosts the 24th Olympiad. For the Korean people, the summer Olympics are a rite of passage into the world of advanced nations. It is recognition from those outside that South Korea has made the leap to being a real power, acting on its own in world affairs.

South Korea is following quite consciously in the path of the only other non-Western nation that has traversed this course of development - Japan. For Japan, the 1964 summer Olympics filled the same function. (See story at right.) ``The Olympics is the passport to join Western advanced society, especially for Orientals,'' a Japanese environmental designer Shinya Izumi, told a recent conference on Olympic planning in Seoul.

For Koreans, the comparison with neighboring Japan evokes pride and pain. Korea's independence was lost for 40 years to Japanese colonialism, until the end of World War II. The bitterness from that oppression remains strong. But so does the recognition that Japan has been a successful modernizer.

``The Japanese, although different, are a similar culture that has made it,'' observes American missionary educator Horace Underwood, a resident of Korea for more than 50 years. ``Therefore, something that will work in Japan is assumed to work in Korea, or [is] a pattern to follow.''

The sense of Korean pride is often expressed in the desire to catch up with and overtake Japan. Koreans are quick to remind visitors that it was their ancient kingdoms from which culture flowed to a more primitive Japan some 1,200 years ago.

Shim Chang Sup, a steel plant manager, was trained in Japan. ``Korea, in the past, has contributed a lot to the development of Japanese culture and skills,'' Mr. Shim says proudly. ``Now it is the reverse. Now we have to learn technology from Japan. In the future, I hope we can resume the superior position in which we will be teaching the Japanese people knowledge....''

At the same time, Korean self-confidence tends to be accompanied by a sense of anxiety about the future. ``Koreans are essentially unconfident that tomorrow will come,'' says Dr. Underwood. ``It is not pessimism that something bad will happen as much as lack of confidence that it will go on well.''

For Koreans these feelings are justified by their history, which they see as one of continual tragedy. Korea has been a battleground for the great powers - China, Japan, and Russia - that surround it. That sense of victimization is enshrined in Korean culture in the term han.

``Han,'' Underwood says, ``is a sense of oppression, of pressure, of pain, of difficulty. [Koreans] tend to say that nobody has had such a difficult history as they've had. Their sense of han is related to all of this sense of uncertainty, of insecurity, and sometimes actual pain.''

The growing Korean sense of pride and nationalism also expresses itself as resentment of the United States and Japan - powers that have dominated Korea in the modern era. Koreans are reexamining the events that led to the division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II into a communist North and Western-aligned South. Increasingly Koreans portray themselves as victims of Japanese colonialism and American cold-war geopolitics.

Can Korea mature successfully? An American scholar of Japan and Korea, Herbert Passin, describes Korea as a tightrope walker. ``Korea,'' Mr. Passin writes, ``may very well be the best tightrope walker in the world today. It not only does not fall off, but it manages to step up its speed as well. Come to think of it, that is a fair description of its last 25 years' history.''

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