Opposition Breathes a Sigh of Relief. SOUTH KOREA: ROH'S CANCELED REFERENDUM

SOUTH KOREAN President Roh Tae Woo's surprise decision to call off a referendum on his rule has won support from most of his political opponents. ``It is a victory for our people who hope for democratic progress amid stability,'' said the Party for Peace and Democracy led by anti-government stalwart Kim Dae Jung. The President's announcement Monday brought a ``very universal loud sigh of relief'' from the opposition, says a Western diplomat in Seoul.

President Roh and his opponents are concerned that a public campaign at this time would only further political confrontation and polarization in South Korea. Only forces on the extremes of the political spectrum, they say, would benefit from such a clash.

The left had welcomed the referendum as an opportunity to press its campaign to overthrow the Roh government. The right argued that a victory would strengthen the President's hand against both the parliamentary opposition and the radical left.

The government appeared headed for a nonbinding mid-April referendum. The outcome of that vote was far from predictable. Some polls showed a Roh victory, reflecting in part concerns about stability fueled by labor unrest and radical student violence.

But there remain powerful lingering doubts as well. These center on Mr. Roh's ties to the previous, unpopular, authoritarian regime of fellow ex-general Chun Doo Hwan.

The Chun regime is under investigation by the National Assembly and by government prosecutors for corruption and abuse of power. The opposition has demanded Mr. Chun's appearance before investigating committees of the Assembly, where the opposition holds a majority of the seats.

KOREAN press reports speculate that the decision to indefinitely postpone the referendum was based on a back-room deal struck between the government and the opposition over the handling of the Chun issue and further democratic reforms.

A government official declined to comment on those reports, but pointed to the President's statement that ``the issue of liquidating the negative legacies of the past era will be wound up through the exercise of political wisdom on the part of both the government party and the opposition.''

The referendum issue has been a political hot potato since Roh suggested it. In the heat of the presidential election battle in December 1987, Roh promised an ``interim appraisal'' of his rule by the public. The pledge was intended to reassure voters of Roh's commitment to democracy and help him overcome the negative image of being Chun's handpicked successor.

Since the election, the opposition has held the pledge over Roh's head as a constant threat, using it as a lever to press the government on other issues. But while publicly calling on the government to honor its promise, the opposition's own enthusiasm for such a test of popularity has been less than overwhelming.

An anti-Roh vote, opposition strategists calculated, might trigger a new presidential election before they were prepared to fight it. A victory would strengthen the government.

Among the opposition party leaders, only Kim Young Sam has continued to press for the mid-term assessment to take place. Korean political analysts say Kim's main motive was competition with rival Kim Dae Jung for the status of being the leading opponent of the government.

Kim Dae Jung, on the other hand, has been trying to shed his extremist image and to establish his credentials as a centrist. Kim Dae Jung, according to sources close to him, was also worried that the turmoil surrounding a referendum would only provide an opportunity for extreme right-wing elements, backed by the military, to make a bid to restore their power.

Ironically, the referendum had already turned into more of a tool for the right than for the opposition.

With poll results indicating a good chance of a Roh victory, members of the ruling party argued that this was a time to regain absolute authority.

Right-wing pressure on the President was evident in the days before his decision. A prominent rightist, Kim Yong Kap, a former Army major, resigned last week from his Cabinet post calling for a crackdown on the left. ``Only a strong government is able to achieve democratic reforms and likewise able to kick leftists out of our society,'' he told reporters last Friday.

The President referred to such voices in his nationally televised speech. ``Not a few have maintained that the authority of the President and the administration would be strengthened by winning a vote of confidence through a national referendum, even though this would entail some commotion,'' Roh said. But he said he decided to put national interests ahead of partisan concerns.

Analysts here generally agree that for most of the political forces in South Korea, the risks of the referendum outweighed its possible benefits.

``The voice of caution prevailed,'' the Western diplomat commented, ``and they all agreed this was something they'd just rather do without.''

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