Democracy in S. Korea

SOUTH Korea faces a two-fold political crisis. First, President Kim Young Sam has decided to prosecute two former rulers for their part in the 1980 killing of hundreds of protesters in the city of Kwangju. Second, one of those former leaders, Roh Tae Woo, has owned up to amassing a vast political slush fund during his time in office. Among its alleged beneficiaries: President Kim himself.

Both parts of this crisis could set South Korean society on its ear. But both also have the potential of purging this still-young democracy of profoundly corrosive elements.

To take the less emotional side of the crisis first: Mr. Roh's hefty slush fund, which may have bulged to as much as $1 billion. The money came from captains of industry who paid up for government contracts and favors. Roh, apparently, then paid out to politicians on all sides. Ironically, Roh helped set South Korea back on track toward electoral democracy after he, an ex-general, became president in 1987. Sadly, his sense of democracy apparently didn't compass the corrupting, undemocratic influence of Big Money payoffs and solicitations.

The slush fund case, now heading toward trial, includes top corporate as well as political figures. It should be a plus for Korean democracy, leading to stricter enforcement of laws against anonymous giving and taking in the political realm.

It's harder to be sure about the other case - the charges against Roh and, more directly, against his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, for their role in the military coup of 1979 and the subsequent Kwangju massacre. The latter event is seared in South Korea's memory. Many South Koreans, perhaps a majority, feel those responsible should be punished. But Chun and Roh have their supporters, and South Korea's simmering regional tensions could come into play. People in the less developed Cholla area in the south, where Kwangju is located, feel most strongly the need for retribution.

Another factor is the timing of President Kim's push to rekindle the Kwangju issue - particularly in light of his decision, before winning the presidency in 1992, to join his party to that of Roh and Chun. There's a suspicion the president is simply trying to divert attention from his sticky involvement in the slush fund affair.

Still, a full public accounting could satisfy the thirst for justice and serve notice that a violent episode - both the Chun coup and the massacre - is closed, never to be repeated.

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