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A Free South Korea?

South Korea’s National Assembly is now meeting in a special session that could well determine the course of that country’s internal politics for years to come. The purpose of the session is to create a bipartisan committee to draft a new constitution, one that opposition groups insist must assure a more direct popular voice in national politics. If this effort succeeds, it could open the way to constitutional change well in advance of the scheduled 1988 presidential election. If it fails, anti-government violence is likely to increase, inviting even greater political repression.

President Chun Doo Hwan, whose party controls the legislature, has approved the special session while stopping short of endorsing its ostensible aim. In a number of above-the-battle statements that are presumably intended to suggest the Assembly’s independence, Chun has indicated that he will not seek to influence the parliamentarians as they go about deciding what should be done. In the end, of course, those who are in Chun’s party can be counted on to do what Chun wants. Some people in South Korea argue that Chun’s recent conciliatory words and the special session are only intended to slow the momentum of the anti-government protests that have been going on since February. By the time the 20-day special session ends, the validity of that claim ought to be clear.

There are signs that both the government and the main moderate opposition group, the New Korea Democratic Party, are alarmed by the more radical trend that anti-Chun demonstrations have taken lately. In the last few weeks a series of rallies staged in major cities by the NKDP have ended in violent clashes between small groups of extremists and the police. A number of campuses have seen similarly bloody confrontations. Since late April, four students have committed suicide --three of them by self-immolation--in acts of political protest. Increasingly, too, the protests have taken on an anti-American tone, with the United States being blamed for propping up the Chun regime.

Progress toward constitutional change in South Korea would not necessarily dampen all political unrest. But certainly failure to achieve progress would add powerfully to the grievances that fuel this unrest, further threatening stability and inviting an intensified repression. That’s why the special National Assembly session will be considering more than possible constitutional change. What it does is also likely to go far in deciding whether South Korea is to have a placid or a troubled future.

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