Warning Signs in South Korea : U.S. Foreign Policy Fritters Away the Good Will of the People

<i> Floyd K. Haskell, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, is a trustee for the Centerfor Development Policy in Washington. </i>

We got to the Philippines two days after Ferdinand E. Marcos left. A week laterour small group--which included Rep. Thomas M. Foglietta (D-Pa.) and Robert White, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador--landed in South Korea. This was a fact-finding mission, and the contrasts were nothing short of terrifying for the future of American foreign policy in Asia.

In the Philippines, U.S. foreign policy had been open to democratic change. In South Korea our group found quite the opposite.

For example, Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, leader of the nation’s 1.5 million Roman Catholics, is a conservative and cautious man who endorses the positions of the opposition New Korea Democratic Party. At one time he met with the U.S. ambassador to South Korea on a regular basis. But he has not had that privilege with President Reagan’s appointed ambassador, Richard L. Walker. The same can be said of South Korea’s leading Protestant minister, the Rev. Moon Ik-wan, and of Kim Dae Jung, the leading political figure for the opposition.

It would seem that it is U.S. policy to talk only to President Chun Doo Hwan and those acceptable to him. So who makes up the opposition leadership, and what do they want?


The leadership is generally middle class, and reminded me of the Aquino leadership in the Philippines. They want the constitution revised by this fall to provide for a direct election of the president. They want freedom of the press, cessation of torture, political prisoners released and amnesty granted, and the restoration of civil rights to those stripped of these rights because they were dissidents.

Kim Dae Jung, who is under a suspended 20-year prison term for sedition and cannot engage in any political activity, risked his life when he returned to South Korea from exile in February, 1985. He arrived four days before the elections to the National Assembly, thus providing dynamic leadership to the opposition party, which, with only a month during which to campaign, won 46%, to the government’s 35%, of the popular vote. However, because election laws did not allocate seats on the basis of “one-man, one-vote,” the government was awarded a substantial majority in the Assembly.

The cardinal, in a sermon at a Mass that our group attended, called for the revision of the constitution before the coming presidential election, thus supporting the central position of the opposition. In his prayer he asked “for the nation to be a just nation and for the laborer to be free from torture.”

At the end of the Mass, we followed the two opposition leaders up the center aisle. Members of the congregation, many of whom were crying, watched as we passed. From the choir loft came applause. Outside the cathedral, students shouted, “Down with the dictatorship,” then ran for cover.


The 1985 election threw a scare into President Chun. He doesn’t intend to let it happen again. In the last year, oppression has escalated. Lawyers who have defended political prisoners have had their licenses revoked; workers are not allowed to strike, and those who participate in any illegal union activity are blacklisted. The press is totally controlled by the government. The right of assembly does not exist.

The Korean Herald on March 9, 1986, reported that students at Seoul National University had tried to hold an “illegal” rally but had been foiled by riot police who, “numbering more than 1,000, were posted at strategic places in advance, including the building housing student clubs, to ban students from moving towards the plaza.”

On the day we arrived in Seoul, Kim Dae Jung was under house arrest to prevent him from attending the announcement by the opposition party of a petition drive asking for a change in the constitution to provide for the direct election of the president.

The wife of the opposition party’s chairman stood on the street corner near her house with petitions that her neighbors and passers-by eagerly signed even though the government has ordered that any employee, public or private, who signs the petition be fired. In less than 10 minutes 50 riot police surrounded her and told signers who were still nearby to retract their signatures.


One thing that we heard said, time after time, was this: “The Chun governmentsays that they’ve got the two things that it takes to win--the media (Korean) and the U.S. government.” Then, at a lunch, a speaker who may have wanted to head off our reaction to any anti-American statements that we might hear told us: “Our students and others who make anti-American statements really don’t mean it. They mean your Administration, not your country.” Maybe, and maybe not. But these are warning signs that we cannot afford to ignore. U.S. foreign policy is frittering away the good will of the South Korean people.

If we don’t promptly change our policy and lean on South Korea’s government to abandon its police state--and we have the leverage to lean effectively--the shouting will become increasingly anti-American.

We cannot afford to close the door to democratic and church leaders whose only goal is a democracy modeled after our own. We cannot afford to be the smiling partner of dictatorship and repression.