From Economic to Political Miracle: South Korea on the Brink of Democracy

Keyes Beech won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Korea in 1951.

Splashes of red, yellow and gold brighten South Korea's somber, furrowed hills. Red peppers lie drying in the noonday sun on straw mats in front of tile-roofed farmhouses on back roads. The rice harvest is in, leaving the fields covered with stubble.

Restaurants are crowded with noisy, laughing people. And if for a moment you wondered where you were, the waitress' garlic-loaded breath is a sharp reminder of being in the Land of the Morning Calm and, quite often during the past year, Afternoon Demonstration. Koreans are among the world's greatest garlic-eaters and demonstrators.

Autumn was always the best of seasons here and this one seems more mellow and full of promise than others to an American visitor who has know this ancient land in war and peace, better or worse, for 40 years--and always wished it well.

There were times when I doubted whether this remote peninsula in northeast Asia was worth the more than 33,000 American lives lost in the Korean war (1950-53). The doubts surfaced again in later years when I saw American guns in the hands of Korean policemen turned on Korean students.

Euphoria has always had a short life span in Korea, a violent, often brutal land with a tragic history. But even the most dogged pessimist might be forgiven a little cautious optimism at the prospects ahead. South Korea's economic success story, although overshadowed by its neighbor, Japan, is now well known. Probably no country has come so far, so fast with so little.

Having wrought an "economic miracle" within a single generation, South Korea is now putting together a "political miracle." After a quarter-century of authoritarian military rule, the country is poised on the brink of democracy.

Voters have already overwhelmingly approved a brand-new constitution. In mid-December they will elect a new president, the first to be chosen by direct vote in 16 years. In February, President Chun Doo Hwan will step down to make way for his successor.

And next fall Seoul will play host to the 1988 Olympics, a milestone that has captured the pride and imagination of all Koreans. This, in their eyes, will be the occasion to mark Korea's arrival on the international stage as a newly industrialized and democratic state.

But they are not quite there yet, and given the Korean propensity to settle political disputes with bullets, there are some concerns. In four turbulent decades, Korea has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power.

Yet the situation is much more favorable now. The literate, informed and politically aware Koreans feel their time has come. Even among government bureaucrats who have a great deal to lose, including their jobs, one senses a feeling that democratic government is not only desirable but inevitable.

It was Korean students, traditionally the conscience of the nation, who hit the streets and jarred things loose last spring after President Chun, a former general, reneged on a promise to deliver democratic reforms, including direct presidential elections.

But the government capitulated only after it became clear that the student protest had the support of Korea's emergent middle class. In a dramatic move that stunned nearly everybody, Roh Tae Woo, head of the ruling party and heir apparent to Chun, yielded to all opposition demands including the freeing of political prisoners and restoration of freedom of the press. Three days later Chun concurred.

The more radical students didn't stay stunned for long. Contending that Roh is merely a clone of Chun, they are demanding that he and the entire existing government be rejected.

A noisy presidential campaign is under full steam with four candidates in the field. Instead of pressing its advantage, the opposition Reunification Democratic Party has again yielded to its suicidal instincts and split, as so often before, between its two rival leaders: Kim Young Sam, 59, is a conventional but capable politician cast in the classic opposition mold; Kim Dae Jung, 63, is an ardent Catholic who seems to feel that he has a divine mission to lead his country.

Given that split plus the long shot candidacy of yet another Kim--Kim Jong Pil, a conservative former prime minister--Roh Tae Woo looks to be an easy winner since he has unlimited funds and the weight of the government machine behind him. Indeed that is the way it has worked in past elections. But there is no guarantee this time.

Despite his forthright espousal of democratic reforms, Roh Tae Woo carries some negative baggage because of his military background. Both Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung command respectable followings. Kim Dae Jung has the more dramatic past: He has been kidnaped, beaten, tortured, imprisoned and sentenced to death by military regimes.

Perhaps because of his rival's credentials as victim, Kim Young Sam has claimed center ground, portraying himself as a safe middle-of-the-roader with no sharp edges who can unite all factions.

This was shrewd because many voters are afraid that if Roh Tae Woo wins the students will revolt, while others fear that if Kim Dae Jung wins the army will revolt. Kim Dae Jung has been anathema to the army ever since he polled a scary 45% of the popular vote running against President Park Chung Hee in 1971. Park was assassinated in 1979.

It's easy to see potholes on the political road map. One disagreeable possibility is that regardless of who wins, the victory margin will be so slim as to bring his legitimacy into question. Another is that radical students, who often seem ideologically closer to communist North Korea than to the south, will provoke the government into doing something foolish that would result in political polarization.

Still another possibility is that the communist north, a disciplined but deadbeat state led by a megalomaniacal Kim Il Sung, communism's leading cult figure, will try to spoil South Korea's democracy-Olympics coming-out party.

Seoul has offered to let Pyongyang share in the Olympics by staging five events--including the 100-kilometer road cycling races--in the north. Thus far the communists have held out for co-host status or nothing. Although the two sides talk to each other daily by telephone--except on Kim Il Sung's birthday when he does not wish to be disturbed--physical contacts are few.

When a communist delegation visited Seoul several years ago, according to smug South Korean officials, one of them observed that it must have been a lot of trouble to round up all the cars in the country and bring them to the capital to impress the visitors.

Not nearly as much trouble, replied a South Korean official, as it was to round up all those tall buildings and bring them to Seoul.

Indeed, South Korea's phenomenal economic progress--from square one to new industrial state in a generation--can be measured by the high-rising Seoul skyline. A whole new city has sprung up on the south bank of the Han river, including facilities for the Olympics to be held Sept. 17-Oct. 2. The government expects to earn more than the $3.1 billion it plans to spend on the games; not surprisingly, the South Korean committee has closely studied the profit-making 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Seoul, with a population of 10 million people, is now the fifth largest city in the world. Per capita income has shot from $80 in 1961 to $2,800 today and is expected to be $5,000 by 1991. Success has not made Koreans easier to get along with. Americans who tend to be sentimental about the Korean War years are often brought up short with a reminder that if the United States and the Soviets had not divided Korea at the 38th parallel, there would have been no war.

Other Americans who recall when Koreans lived on an American dole that supplied 75% of the country's budget are startled to hear the United States described as an "economic bully." Korean criticism is a reaction against U.S. protectionist sentiment even though 40% of all Korean exports go to the United States and Seoul will end the year enjoying a $9-billion trade surplus with America.

The presence of 40,000 American servicemen in South Korea is another source of anti-American sentiment, although nearly all Koreans acknowledge that their country's U.S. relationship is central to its survival.

Much of what is loosely called anti-Americanism is a reflection of a new nationalism born of success. It also stems from a remembrance of things past when, in the postwar 50s, hundreds of once-respectable Korean women lined up outside American military installations--to sell the only thing they had to sell, as prostitutes.

In the bad old days of 1950, north of Seoul, two Americans in a jeep stopped to wait their turn to ford a shallow stream. Alongside the road a bare-bottomed Korean child was crying his heart out.

"I wonder what he's crying for," said one American. "He's a Korean," said the other.

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