The handpicked presidential candidate of South Korea's authoritarian leadership tried to assure Americans on Tuesday that he is determined to bring democracy to a nation that, he acknowledged, has seldom known it.
"Korea has now entered a new stage of political development," Roh Tae Woo said. "The days have clearly gone when the will of the government could be imposed on the people."
Roh's effort to portray himself as a democrat was met by a scornful demonstration of about 100 Koreans living in the United States who denounced him as "an architect of the military dictatorship" in Seoul. One demonstrator lunged at the 54-year-old former general and, a witness said, landed a glancing blow on Roh's shoulder.
Washington police said that no one was injured in scuffling outside the National Press Club, where Roh delivered the speech, the major address of his two-day Washington visit. Only one person was arrested, a 41-year-old immigrant from South Korea who was released after paying a $10 fine.
A witness, free-lance photographer William Ingram, told the Associated Press that a demonstrator jumped at Roh and hit him on the shoulder before U.S. and South Korean bodyguards knocked the attacker to the ground and dragged him away. Roh was unharmed and apparently unconcerned when he delivered his speech a few minutes later.
Roh was picked by President Chun Doo Hwan last spring as the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party to succeed Chun when he steps down next February. At the time, it was assumed that Roh would be rubber-stamped as the winner under the same electoral college system that confirmed Chun's position as president after he took power in a military coup in 1980. Roh, a military academy classmate of Chun, was a leader of the coup.
However, after South Koreans staged weeks of massive anti-government protests last June, Roh surprised the nation by calling for a freely contested direct election. He is expected to be opposed by one of the two best-known opposition leaders, Kim Dae Jung or Kim Young Sam, in the election, now planned for mid-December.
Roh's visit to the United States clearly was intended to overcome a perceived American sympathy for the opposition and its candidates who have been jailed, exiled and deprived of political rights for challenging the country's authoritarian regimes.
Roh acknowledged that "democracy has not been a birthright" in South Korea. But he said it is time to open up the country's political system to match South Korea's vibrant economy.
In response to questions, Roh said that he supports workers' demands for higher wages, which have sparked continuing labor unrest. He said that South Korea has "neglected the workers" in its drive for economic modernization.
During his visit, Roh has had brief meetings with President Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and leaders of the Senate and the House. However, Administration spokesmen have insisted that the meetings were not an endorsement of Roh's candidacy.