President Chun Doo Hwan, who for much of his life was an army officer, seized power in a military takeover and would seem to have no compunction about using force. But in the present troubles he has yet to call out the army. What accounts for his patience so far?
Political analysts here, Korean and non-Korean, cite a number of factors. Among them:
--The overwhelming desire of the South Korean people, and Chun himself, to see that the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul are carried out peacefully and on schedule.
--Chun's need to placate a growing body of moderates among his supporters, including those in the military.
--A stronger national economy that has enabled South Korea, though still in debt, to worry less about the effect public unrest might have on its image abroad, particularly among international bankers.
--The increasing sophistication of the South Korean people, which has made the average citizen less willing to be dictated to, as a long-term American resident put it, "by a bunch of men with guns."
--Growing concern within the military about public hostility, particularly in light of the suppression of the Kwangju uprising in 1980 at the cost of at least 194 lives.
Few Political Concessions
But despite all this, Chun has yet to make any political concessions of substance, and he has yet to commit himself to resolving the situation peacefully. The latest test of Chun's patience occurred Friday when tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of 32 cities, and Chun made no move to call out the troops.
At a meeting Wednesday with Kim Young Sam, president of the main opposition Reunification Democratic Party, Chun merely agreed to resume talks with the opposition on revising the constitution. All this did, in effect, was restore the deadlock that existed in April, when Chun ordered the talks suspended until after the Olympic Games.
Other promises Chun has made, for unspecified "broad democratic reform," are still unfulfilled.
Kim said he warned Chun at their meeting that imposing martial law would mean "your end." But Chun, according to a government statement, reiterated his determination to use whatever means are necessary to restore order.
Vows to Keep Order
"It is best, if at all possible, not to use emergency measures," Chun was quoted as saying. "But I must exercise all the powers and responsibilities vested in me as president if national discipline becomes lax and social unrest is fomented."
The United States has made it clear that it cannot countenance the use of military force or the imposition of martial law. If Chun has made any reply, it has not been made public. U.S. officials also have said that they see no likelihood of troops being used or of martial law being decreed, but they have taken care to add the words at this time .
In the view of foreign diplomats, South Korea has managed to get past three crisis points--moments when martial law could conceivably have been proclaimed--since the current unrest erupted June 10 when the ruling Democratic Justice Party nominated Roh Tae Woo, a longtime Chun associate, to succeed Chun as president when he steps down next February.
The first came that weekend, as student-led protest demonstrations spread, and the second came the following Friday, June 19, a day after tens of thousands of protesters poured into the downtown streets of this capital. The third was Friday's widespread protest.
On the night of June 19, Prime Minister Lee Han Key issued a stern warning that if the disturbances were not stopped, "extraordinary measures" would be taken. Many had expected an announcement of emergency measures, not just a warning.
Army Use Still Possible
And in spite of Friday's demonstrations having come and gone with no "emergency measures" undertaken, there is still concern here that Chun might ultimately turn to the army to ensure that his plan for the succession goes ahead unhindered.
On Wednesday, as Chun was meeting with Kim, the defense minister, Lee Ki Baek, was calling army, navy and air force commanders together for what Korean reporters were told was a review of "unusual" military activity in Communist North Korea. Skeptical reporters asked if this was not really a smoke screen for a discussion of the unrest in South Korea.
Brig. Gen. Lee Heung Sik, the defense ministry's spokesman, said that as far as he knew the meeting of military commanders had been scheduled long ago.
The Olympic Games are becoming an increasingly important factor in South Korean politics. They appear to be holding Chun back and spurring on his critics.
According to South Korean sources and foreign diplomats, Chun has said privately that he is willing to sacrifice the games to maintain his style of domestic stability. Yet virtually all South Koreans, Chun included, are united in nationalistic anticipation of basking in the limelight that the games will provide for a country once known as the Hermit Kingdom.
"The government would do almost anything to avoid martial law," a Western diplomat said.
Olympics and Democracy
To Koreans who also want domestic stability but with freedom of expression and an opportunity to have a say in national policy, "the Olympics has become a rallying point for democratization," another diplomat said.
"The Olympics," he said, "are supposed to advertise Korea's achievements to the world. Most people see no reason why they should not advertise its political as well as its economic accomplishments."
Korean and foreign analysts alike see the current political problems as a struggle between conservatives in the government and liberals in the opposition for the support of the growing middle class.
Both camps are burdened by dependence on extremists at their outer fringes, the main difference being that on the conservative side, Chun, the leader, is usually ranked with the hard-line minority. But some diplomats believe it is a feeling that Chun is with them that keeps the military from considering a coup. This also makes it more difficult for moderate conservatives to have much of an impact.
On the liberal side, Kim Young Sam, a moderate by inclination, has to rely on the more militant Kim Dae Jung, who in 1971 was the last opposition candidate in a free and open presidential election here. Kim Young Sam must also rely on extremely militant radicals who are, in the words of a diplomat, "the opposition's most vociferous, effective people."
7 Years of Change
The timing of the current troubles may also be a factor favoring moderation. Important changes over the past seven years have made this a different society from what it was in 1980, when Chun seized power.
Chun himself was responsible for most of the instability that followed the assassination in 1979 of President Park Chung Hee. But there was already what amounted to a political void, and this had created an economic near-crisis. South Korea had no trade surplus then, and was borrowing foreign money to repay foreign loans.
Today, with a trade surplus growing so fast that the money supply is threatening to get out of hand, South Korea no longer needs new foreign loans. On the contrary, it is paying them back as fast as it can to curb incipient inflation.
Despite the political troubles, South Korea's gross national product increased by 15.6% in the first three months of this year.
"As the people's bellies get fuller, they have become more concerned with freedom," said Horace Underwood, grandson of the missionary who founded Seoul's Yonsei University. "They want to speak out. They want to read things."
Under Chun, the number of students in South Korean colleges has doubled, and South Korea has become one of the world's most literate nations.
Underwood, who has lived most of his life here, said that South Koreans "resent being treated as ignorant peasants by men with guns." He said press controls so irritate Koreans that some have taken to saying, "Just because you read it in the newspaper doesn't mean it's a lie."
Korean and foreign analysts agree that much of the military establishment recognizes the growing antipathy toward governments made up of former officers. And many officers feel that another military intervention, however successful in briefly patching together a picture of tranquility, would only exacerbate the anti-military feelings and undermine security.
As a result, these analysts say, the military is less politically trigger-happy than it has been in the past.
The trouble that followed Chun's suspension of debate on constitutional reform, a move reportedly championed by the extremists in his camp, appears to have given the conservative moderates a louder voice, at least for the moment.
In late May, for example, Chun dismissed Chang Se Dong as head of the Agency for National Security Planning, the old South Korean CIA. Chang, a noted hard-liner, is believed to have been the driving force behind the decision to postpone reform.
Now, on the eve of summer vacation for a million students on South Korea's 105 university campuses, Chun is believed to be calculating that when the students go home, his troubles will diminish. Student turmoil, which is almost a seasonal event in South Korea, has always disappeared with the coming of summer.
If it doesn't this time--and student leaders have promised that it will not--Chun may yet choose to use force.