This is a fateful time for South Korea--one heavy with perils and possibilities. A political drama is being played out that will likely shape the nation's future. The United States, with 40,000 troops on the peninsula, is inevitably and intimately involved.
South Korea has been governed by successive military regimes for 25 years. But, in response to unmistakable signs of growing political unrest, President Chun Doo Hwan has pledged to step down in favor of an elected successor in 1988. If he does, he will become the first leader in the country's postwar history to leave office voluntarily and alive.
South Korean political development is beginning to catch up with the spectacular economic modernization that in three decades has transformed the republic from a war-shattered wasteland to one of the world's most impressive success stories. In 1988 South Korea's achievements will receive the ultimate imprimatur when Seoul hosts the Olympic Games.
There is much reason to be hopeful about the prospects for South Korea's political transition. The generals have apparently accepted the judgment of the rest of society that it is time for military rule to end. There is an evident national consensus that the next government must be legitimized by a democratic election. Even Chun's most bitter critics agree that he must be allowed to live on in South Korea in peace and safety after he leaves office. Both the government and the opposition have agreed to form a committee of the National Assembly to begin a process of constitutional reform.
But formidable obstacles lie immediately ahead. Key issues are in hot dispute--including membership of the constitutional reform committee, opposition demands for the release of all political prisoners and whether the next constitution should provide for a directly elected presidency or an indirectly elected cabinet. Disagreements over form are, at root, a contest for power. The governing party believes that its electoral chances are best under a system of direct election; the opposition agrees, and therefore favors an indirect election.
One of the leaders of the opposition, Kim Dae Jung, is under house arrest. His bitter, uncompromising confrontation with the regime partly eclipses a rivalry between himself and the other leading opposition figure, Kim Yong Sam. Knowing that the opposition must remain united if it is to have any real chance of taking power, the "two Kims" are locked in an uneasy alliance of convenience.
Political maneuvering has taken place in a pressurized environment of growing campus unrest led by a small group of hard-core Marxist radicals. Although agreement to begin the process of constitutional reform has momentarily eased some of the tension, the rapid approach of the 1988 deadline is beginning to raise the political temperature.
All this activity is taking place under the baleful and attentive eye of North Korea, the most regimented and militarized society on Earth. As North Korean leader Kim Il Sung nears the end of his life, the one goal that has driven him for four decades remains unachieved--the military conquest of the entire Korean peninsula. With nearly 1 million heavily armed troops poised along it, the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea has long been a powder keg. One does not have to be an alarmist to fear that Kim Il Sung could decide that it is now or never for a military solution. His regime has demonstrated a capacity for desperate and irrational acts; in 1983 North Korean agents detonated a bomb that killed 17 members of the Seoul cabinet while they were on a state visit to Burma.
South Korea is taking a key step toward political maturity. What makes its situation special is the rapidity with which it has reached this point and the fact that the process is taking place in one of the world's most dangerous military environments.
Neither we nor the South Koreans can permit the transition to democracy to fail, as it easily could. A breakdown in political negotiations could lead to confrontation, paralysis and the reimposition of martial law. The resulting turmoil would carry the small but real danger of reigniting the Korean War.
South Korea's political transition is one for the Koreans themselves to manage. But the U.S. stake is so high and its presence so large that inevitably the American ambassador is a central figure on the Korean stage. The U.S. Embassy has played a delicate role, quietly urging moderation and compromise while maintaining strict neutrality among political rivals. The ambassador's July 4 reception caused a sensation when the invitation list included senior government officials and both Kims.
South Korea's achievements are a monument to the success of America's foreign policy toward that country. But we still have a crucial role to play. South of the 38th Parallel the seeds of democracy are growing. But there is still a need for continued nurturing from the United States to ensure that free, fair and democratic elections occur.