SOUTH KOREAN leader Roh Tae Woo has been hearing rumblings to his right. Recent tough action against protesting students and striking workers may help quiet those rumblings, even as it starts others in the process. President Roh came to office a little over a year ago, after Korea's first direct democratic election. But a shadow followed him into office - his military past and his closeness to former leader Chun Doo Hwan. Nonetheless, Mr. Roh has opened the political process, allowed investigation of past wrongdoing under Mr. Chun, and indicated a willingness to start a dialogue with the North Koreans - all of which have helped lift that shadow.
But even as he pursued liberalization, one-time colleagues in uniform grew edgy. Roh's overtures to the North look like fraternization with the enemy to right-wing hard-liners. Some, like Lt. Gen. Min Byong Don, superintendent of South Korea's military academy, said as much. General Min and a few dozen other like-minded officers lost their jobs recently as Roh showed he can be stern with the right, too.
But at the same time, the President was telling the country's police forces to ``invoke the right of self-defense'' against demonstrators throwing firebombs. Roh approved the issuing of M-16 rifles to the police, an order he later rescinded after loud protests from opposition politicians and the press. But the message got out that the government was losing patience. Then last week thousands of riot troops stormed the Hyundai shipyard in Ulsan to end a four-month-long strike.
These displays of toughness may soothe, for a time, Roh's critics on the right. Now he can return to the fundamental task of establishing democracy. Crucial to that task, in the views of opposition leaders and much of the Korean public, is a thorough airing of events during Chun's iron-fisted rule. They want the discredited, self-exiled former general to testify before the National Assembly. Roh has resisted such demands, but appears to be edging toward accommodation.
In fact, evidence of cooperation between the Roh administration and the opposition has grown of late. For example, the President's postponing of a promised referendum on his rule was approved by Kim Dae Jung and other prominent opposition leaders. No one felt at ease about dealing with the outcome of such a vote at the present time.
Roh's position as a general-turned-democrat will never be easy. His authoritarian past may pop to the surface from time to time, and he will certainly continue to hear rumbles from the poles of South Korean politics. Still, he has succeeded in steering his country toward freer government. May he continue on that course.