S. Korea Sinks Democratic Roots
Despite new freedoms, critics flay Roh on corruption cleanup, breakdown in law and order. TWO YEARS AFTER MILITARY RULE
SEOUL — SOUTH Korean President Roh Tae Woo has an uneasy hold on power. Despite presiding over a remarkable period of political change, the soft-spoken leader is assailed from all sides for failing to display strong leadership. ``I modestly think a lot has been done,'' President Roh told foreign reporters yesterday, in defense of his record.
``There is still some unrest in this country,'' the President said. ``Our society has many issues to resolve as it moves from authoritarianism to democracy.... However, I am not pessimistic about the situation because it represents the pain of creating a new democratic order,'' he said confidently in his first press conference with foreign reporters since coming to power a year and a half ago.
Mr. Roh was marking the second anniversary of his dramatic declaration conceding democratic reforms, the moment that won the former general his political legitimacy. He is credited even by his foes with an act of political courage, averting a likely bloody clash between the Army and the massive wave of protesters who filled Korean streets in the summer of 1987 demanding democracy.
That achievement has added significance when compared with the far different outcome of similar events in China. Korea, after almost three decades of Army-dominated rule, went on to hold free elections in December 1987 for the president, won by Roh in a tight four-way race. Other reforms, including wide press freedom, as well as a opposition victory in a freely contested parliamentary election last year, followed.
But Roh's critics charge he has allowed the country to drift and failed to carry out his dramatic declaration of two years ago on June 29.
The criticism is often contradictory. He gets heat for a breakdown in order symbolized by violent student demonstrations and labor strife. At the same time, he is accused of failing to move more rapidly to dismantle the repressive apparatus of his disgraced predecessor and friend, Chun Doo Hwan.
``We have had one and half years with Mr. Roh as president, but he should have done more than what he has done so far,'' says moderate opposition National Assemblyman Chung Jey-moon.
``The government should be strong enough to keep law and order in the country.'' he says.
``Without clearing away the vicious legacies of the previous regime, the new government can hardly be called a new republic,'' the Korea Times concluded in its editorial marking the two-year anniversary.
The feeling of drift in the government's direction has been accentuated in recent months by a slide in South Korea's booming economy. Government officials cite rising wages, due to labor militancy, and American pressure to revalue upward Korea's currency as the cause. But critics again fault the government for not acting strongly to control these developments.
Roh says he is confident the government can deal with the ``difficulties'' in the economy. ``When this democratic process is going on, all the pent-up desires of people are coming up to demand equitable shares for themselves,'' he said to explain the cause of the current problems. He said recent government appeals for restraint on the part of both labor and business had already produced ``positive results.''
Some foreign observers say Korean democratization has turned a crucial corner. ``Things are going well,'' a well-informed Western diplomat says. The electoral process is entrenched, he says, with elections for local government expected next year, followed by legislative elections and the next presidential vote in 1992. The press has broken free of government control, with an explosion of new publications on the scene.
The opposition parties, while constantly challenging the government, are operating within this system. If anything their actions are increasingly oriented solely toward positioning themselves for the electoral contests.
The violent conflicts of this spring, particularly involving radical students and unions, raised fears of a confrontation with hard-line elements in the ruling party and among the army and intelligence apparatus. The government has carried out widespread arrests under the National Security Law in response to pressure from the right.
But the kind of confrontation which some feared could reverse the democratic gains failed to emerge. This spring, the diplomat says, ``is the last hurrah of the extreme right and extreme left.''
Still, critics raise concerns about several key aspects of the Roh presidency. The government, says veteran journalist Park Kwon-sang, has failed to deliver on promises to clean up the legacy of corruption and abuse of power during the Chun regime. Mr. Chun remains in semi-exile in a Buddhist monastery and has not yet appeared before National Assembly committees investigating his regime. The investigation of the army massacre of anti-government protesters in Kwangju in 1980 is also still unresolved.
These problems still threaten Roh's own legitimacy and that of many of his party leadership because of their own involvement in those events. Sensitivities on this issue were clearly evident yesterday when the President rejected the the conclusions of an American report on Kwangju and and the Army takeover in 1980. The report, issued in response to queries from the Assembly investigators, questioned the legitimacy of the use of Army troops. The US has been accused of being involved, mostly through approving the deployment of troops under joint US-Korean command, for use in internal suppression.
Behind those concerns about that past is what Mr. Park calls the lack of ``structural change'' from the Chun era, particularly in the institutions of repression such as the police, the army and the central intelligence agency. Reforms of the laws governing those institutions, which currently allow broad suppression of dissent, have not yet taken place. Some of the blame for that, many agree, lies also with the squabbling opposition parties.
``The ruling party and the power elite have bought into pluralism but whether they bought into the part where they could lose power remains to be seen,'' the diplomat says.