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Seoul — During the past year, South Koreans have fought for and won unprecedented democratic freedoms. Faced by the unrelenting force of thousands of student-led street protesters, backed by the middle class, the military-led government yielded to deep reforms. In this short span, Korea held its first free direct presidential election in almost 20 years. It elected a parliament in which the ruling party lost its majority for the first time ever. Public debate, press freedom, and artistic expression are now largely unfettered. And most political prisoners have been freed.
While Koreans welcome these changes, they wonder how long they will last. They wait for the other shoe to drop, for the forces of authoritarianism in the military and security establishment to reassert themselves.
In June and July, when radical students trying to march to the border to meet North Korean counterparts clashed with riot police, many Koreans anxiously watched the response from the fiercely anticommunist military. ``The radicals may be helping the military, reminding the people of the security and stability they had under [former President] Chun Doo Hwan,'' says Park Kuon Song, a veteran journalist.
Others worry that the gathering confrontation in the National Assembly between the government of President Roh Tae Woo and the three major opposition parties, which hold a combined majority, will also boost the foes of democracy. The Assembly, it is feared, will become deadlocked and unable to pass legislation.
The opposition is intent on bringing to justice Mr. Chun and others, including military leaders, accused of corruption and repression. Opposition Assemblyman Cho Se Hyong worries that pushing too hard could provoke a reaction from the hard-liners in the ruling camp.
Such concerns are understandable, given South Korea's long history of authoritarian government, virtually uninterrupted since the republic's birth in 1948.
Since 1961, the country has been led by Army generals who seized power by force, then shed their uniforms and held elections, albeit ones well under their control. Since the Korean war divided the country into two bitter foes, still technically in a state of war, the military has been able to cite national security to justify its often harsh politics.
The events of this past year marked a departure from that well-worn path. Though Mr. Roh is a former general and the chosen successor to ex-general Chun, he came to power peacefully and through an open but hotly contested election. Roh has been credited, even by his opponents, with carrying out many promised reforms. His open and low-key style contrasts with that of his austere, imperious predecessor.
``I am optimistic about our future,'' says independent opposition Assemblyman Lee Chul. ``Korea is changing step by step.'' He and other longtime opposition members see Roh as a bridge between the authoritarian past and a democratic future.
If the center of Korean politics falters, there are forces far less sympathetic to liberal democracy waiting to seize any opening. On the left there is a very small, well-organized, and growing neo-Marxist movement. Though it is based among radical students and ex-students, the movement's tentacles reach into the industrial working class. Analysts say the radicals cannot hope to gain power, but by manipulating symbols of Korean nationalism, particularly anti-Americanism, they can cause turmoil.
On the right are elements of the military and their allies who feel threatened by democratization. They resist any moves, favored by the opposition and by elements of the ruling party, to dismantle the powerful domestic political role of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA, now called the Agency for National Security Planning), the main instrument of political repression for almost 30 years.
Koreans are haunted by patterns of the past, by memories of previous openings to democracy that have slammed shut before they became permanent.
For many Koreans, recent events have an eerie echo of a previous period. In April 1960, a
student uprising against rigged elections toppled the authoritarian government of Syngman Rhee, who had been President since 1948. Democratic parliamentary elections followed; an opposition government came to power in August.
But the new government was immediately beset by instability. Demonstrations spread, with workers and the poor expressing discontent with economic and political conditions. A growing left-wing minority of students advocating reunification with the North heightened concerns about communist infiltration. The opposition party that had come to power was riven by factionalism and finally split in two, paralyzing the National Assembly.
Korea's democratic experiment came to an abrupt end on May 16, 1961, when a small group of young nationalist military officers staged a coup. In the name of anticommunism, economic development, alliance with the United States, and cleaning up corruption, the junta arrested thousands of politicians, students, and military rivals.
Coup leader Park Chung Hee ruled Korea for the next 18 years. He brought stability and economic development, but at the cost of democracy. Park was elected and reelected to the presidency several times, but voting was increasingly tainted by fraud. The Army's internal security command and a newly created KCIA enforced order.
``Economic progress was quite a bit faster under the controlled political environment that the military enforced than it would have been had the previous government stayed in power,'' says a US expert on the Korean military. ``In those days, they had something to contribute managerially and technically. But the society soon outgrew them.''
Economic progress delivered by military regimes was their undoing. It created a vast middle class, well educated and increasingly aware of the world outside.
Modernization brought large economic institutions - huge corporations and conglomerates. Those institutions began to chafe at the government's tight controls over the economy.
By the late 1970s, the cry was increasingly heard that the nation should have a political sys-tem that matched its economic maturity, especially among business and middle-class Koreans.
``In the '60s, we had to eradicate absolute poverty and at the same time industrialize,'' says opposition party leader Kim Jong Pil, former prime minister and an architect of the 1961 coup. ``In the '70s ... our economy took off. In the '80s, based upon the foundations of relative prosperity, we felt we were going to have democratization, which was rudely interrupted by Chun Doo Hwan and his cohorts.''
The opening for democratization came after the assassination of President Park in October 1979 by his own intelligence chief. But the brief interval of freer politics, known as the ``Seoul spring,'' ended with the seizure of power in May 1980 by a group of Army generals.
Though Chun's administration delivered another leap forward in economic growth, his government lacked even the limited legitimacy that Park enjoyed.
When students demanding democracy took to the streets in June 1987, they had the evident backing of the vast majority of Koreans. ``Some of the governing class came to the conclusion that this style [of governing] won't work anymore,'' says the American expert. Those ruling forces, including large segments of the military leadership, were clearly behind Roh Tae Woo's initiative on June 29 to concede to opposition demands for reforms.
Chun did not take his hand off the levers of authoritarian power easily. In mid-June, according to several sources, Chun decided to call in the tanks and declare martial law. Stern warnings from the US, the sources say, plus opposition within the ruling camp, forced him to back down. Even as late as September, Chun again considered martial law in response to a strike wave that engulfed the country.
The threats of military intervention have diminished since the country held free elections for president in December and for the National Assembly in April. But the weakness of political institutions provides an opportunity for reintervention by the military and security forces.
Having lost its control of the National Assembly, the ruling party is facing the prospect of sharing power for the first time. The opposition is every bit as unprepared for such a prospect as the ruling party is.
While proclaiming democracy as their goal, the opposition forces have demonstrated that they are no less dominated by the desire for power than the ruling party is. The main opposition party split in two in December, because two rival leaders (Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam) refused to set aside their ambitions for the sake of unity. The split enabled Roh to win the presidency with only 36.7 percent of the vote.
``Political parties in Korea are vehicles of individuals,'' observes an American missionary educator, Horace Underwood, who has lived in Korea for more than 50 years. Even in the broader society, Dr. Underwood says, ``Korean organizations tend to splinter and factionalize.''
Powerful regional loyalties add to factionalism. Each party has developed a strong regional base, encouraging hostilities based purely on place of birth.
The culture of compromise that is so essential for democracy to function in the West and Japan is weak in Korea. ``It is a very serious problem that debate and argument are very difficult in Korean society,'' Underwood says. ``You either go along with the crowd or you're the enemy.''
Ultimately the greatest support for the success of Korean pluralism is the passionate - and informed - commitment from the vast majority of Koreans to democracy. They are concerned about the unsettled conditions of a more open society. But confidence in democratic institutions comes with experience. Now, with economic security, Koreans are able to give democracy the time it needs to prove itself.
AN AUTHORITARIAN PAST May 1948: Elections for National Assembly held in South under UN supervision. July 1948: National Assembly elects President Syngman Rhee. August 1948: Republic of Korea formally established in South. 1952, 1956: Rhee reelected. 1960: Rhee reelected, with widespread fraud. Student revolt follows; 142 students killed by police; Rhee resigns April 27. Civilian constitutional government set up under 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 47 percent against Yun's 45 percent. Fraud widely suspected. May 1967: Park defeats Yun, garnering 51 percent of the vote. 1969: National Assembly amends the Constitution, removing two-term restriction on the presidency. 1971: Park narrowly defeats Kim Dae Jung, who charges fraud. 1972: Park declares martial law, enacts Yushin Constitution with indirect election of president, unlimited number of terms. October 1979: Park assassinated by head of Korean Central Intelligence Agency. December 1979: Gen. Chun Doo Hwan leads intramilitary coup. 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. December 1987: Roh Tae Woo elected President in direct elections. April 1988: Parliamentary elections; opposition parties achieve a combined majority in National Assembly.