A WEEK of student protests across South Korea, including three self-immolations, has highlighted the emerging status of President Roh Tae Woo as a lame-duck leader. The string of protests, which are expected to continue into mid-May, were triggered last week after riot policemen beat a university freshman to death.
The incident fueled fears that President Roh, who is constitutionally barred from running again in an election next year, might be resorting to harsh measures as his political power weakens toward the end of his term.
Mr. Roh's associates warn that his ability to rule will increasingly experience what is called noo soo, or a "leakage" of power, as people and politicians anticipate a takeover of government by Roh's successor.
In South Korea, where democratic institutions are new and still mistrusted, an old-style perception persists that a leader with a predestined end is already spent, and sometimes dangerous.
Roh has also suffered from a perceived inability to check the clout of big business, resulting in what is known as "the politics of shocks." Roh was elected in 1987 after protests toppled the dictatorship of his military colleague, Chun Doo Hwan.
In recent months, for instance, South Korea has been rocked by a high-level bribery scandal, a massive leak of a toxic industrial chemical, and skyrocketing prices of urban land caused by speculators, among other problems. Such events helped to fuel the protests, even at a time when the public has grown weary of student demonstrations.
"We have no apparatus to contain the influence of big business," says Nam Jae Hee, a National Assembly member and a leader of the president's Democratic Liberal Party (DLP).
Roh will need to take stern steps in coming months to stem any weakness arising from his lame-duck status, Mr. Nam says.
"If the government doesn't take strong measures, the situation will become chaotic," he says. "The Korean people are not experienced with democratic life yet. Every group wants their fair share. It would be impossible to satisfy everybody. We will be a bankrupt nation."
The protests are partly aimed at preventing a return to past authoritarian practices. The killing of the student forced Roh to sack his home minister, make an apology, and restrain the tactics of plainclothes riot police, who are known as "white-bone squads" for their skull-like helmets.
In another gesture to public dissent, the Roh government issued an ultimatum last Thursday to those businesses that had ignored its demand for them to sell idle land as a way to slow down the rise of property prices.
"Businesses should respect the rules set by the government," Roh said.
Roh's domestic woes are in sharp contrast to his foreign policy successes in improving ties with Moscow, Beijing, and North Korea.
And despite the problem of Roh's political future, the DLP itself was able to score an impressive victory on March 26, when local elections were held for the first time in 30 years.
A second set of higher-level local elections for six cities and nine provinces, is due in June. The vote is widely regarded as a test of whether the opposition, lead by a newly formed Democratic Union Party headed by Kim Dae Jung, can recover from its poor showing in March.
Roh's five-year term does not end until February 1993, but inter-factional feuding within his DLP and his lame-duck status are forcing him to consider naming a successor soon, with an election expected in late 1992.
To quell concerns about his commitment to democracy, Roh recently ruled out choosing a successor from among his relatives or retired military officers in his party. And his aides say Roh is ready to choose someone from outside the region that has dominated South Korean politics for so long. Many leaders are from Kyonsangbuk-do province and its capital, Taegu. Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, on the other hand, is from the southwest region, where his party has the most support.
Roh joined forces last May with Kim Young Sam, a longtime opposition figure, to form the DLP, changing the face of Korean politics. The new party was designed to copy the like-named ruling party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party, which has enjoyed power for 35 years by rotating the leadership post among the chiefs of each faction within the party.
Kim Young Sam, who wants Roh to name him successor, would like the president to make a decision by the end of the year, before Kim loses any more of the popularity left over from his days as an opposition leader.
Kim also fears that his opponents within the DLP might move to change South Korea's Constitution from a presidential to a parliamentary system. Such a move would make it easier for a Roh relative or a former military officer to keep power within the old ruling circles.
Roh and his aides are ambiguous on whether they would support such move.
Many analysts suggest that a switch to a parliamentary system is likely if a deal is struck between Roh and opposition leader Kim Dae Jung.
In return for backing parliamentary rule, Kim Dae Jung would be offered the position of a weak but honorable presidency, analysts say.
For now, however, Kim Dae Jung is leading a legislative attack on the National Security Law, which was designed to protect against North Korean agents but has also been used in the past to jail political opponents.
The DLP has offered to narrow the scope of the law but has not gone far enough to satisfy the opposition.
Student protesters, meanwhile, are planning big demonstrations on May 9, and on May 18, the anniversary of the 1980 Kwangju massacre, in which the Army killed hundreds of protesters.