With the South Korean election just days away, the United States is nervously watching events in Seoul, hoping that the kind of political turmoil that followed the 1986 ballot contest in the Philippines between Ferdinand E. Marcos and Corazon Aquino can be avoided.
The United States has tried to convey an air of detachment from the South Korean election to be held Wednesday, but U.S. officials make it clear that they are working hard to ensure that there will be no political crisis in South Korea during the election or after the returns come in.
Such a crisis, American diplomats and analysts say, could come in any one of three forms:
--A dispute over the validity or fairness of the balloting.
--The intervention of the South Korean military.
--The formation of a new government with so little popular support that it will have trouble running the country.
"The tough part comes after the elections," William Clark Jr., deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in an interview last week. "(South Korea) is a very fragmented body politic right now. It's going to be a tough 2 1/2 months" between Dec. 16 and the swearing-in of a new president Feb. 25.
The stakes for U.S. foreign policy are high. South Korea has 40,000 American troops stationed on its soil and is one of the most prosperous Asian trading partners. Seoul is to play host to next year's Summer Olympics, an event that could enhance South Korea's international status.
The election will also be one of the most important tests of the Reagan Administration's stated policy of promoting democracy.
"Democratic government and greater individual freedom now represent the wave of the future," Gaston J. Sigur, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in a speech last week. ". . . Americans have a profound stake in the cultivation of democracy around the world."
Over the last three years, the United States has taken steps to encourage unpopular rulers in the Philippines, Haiti and South Korea to yield power or open the way to democratic reforms. But that policy has produced a government of dangerous fragility under Aquino in the Philippines. More recently, an election in Haiti was canceled amid widespread violence.
South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan last spring selected a longtime aide, Roh Tae Woo, to succeed him without direct elections when Chun's term ends next year. That decision sparked nationwide protest demonstrations and street clashes.
Roh's Dramatic Proposals
At the end of June, with the sting of tear gas in the air, with the Olympic Games little more than a year away, and with U.S. diplomatic pressure including a Sigur visit to Seoul, Roh--whom Chun said he had authorized to make political decisions--announced a dramatic set of proposals for democracy, including direct election of the president. The proposals met virtually all of the opposition's demands.
Two days later, President Chun embraced the program outlined by Roh.
The White House quickly praised Roh's move, but U.S. officials remain worried about the tense political situation.
"In the Philippines and Korea, we (Americans) seem to have the idea that so long as we have a fair election, everything will come out all right," said Harry Harding, a specialist on Asian affairs for the Brookings Institution. "We have been so preoccupied with the problem of how to deal with the decaying, unpopular tyrant that we haven't worked out how to deal with an ineffective democrat."
For the last two months, American officials have been trying to avoid saying or doing anything that could suggest official support for any of the South Korean candidates. But the fact that President Reagan received Roh at the White House in September is viewed by many in South Korea as evidence that Roh has U.S. backing.
Pictured With Reagan
Roh's campaign handouts and placards give prominent display to his meeting with Reagan, and some of the literature notes that the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, James R. Lilley, called Roh a hero at a Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy this year.
Clark, the deputy assistant secretary of state, insisted that any other South Korean candidate who visited the White House would also have been received.
"I think we are being used in this election much less than I thought possible," Clark said.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is a longtime friend of opposition presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung and has for years supported him in human rights disputes with the Seoul government. But a spokesman for Kennedy said the senator is not endorsing Kim Dae Jung or any other candidate.
Aides to several other senators said they have been trying hard to avoid any appearance of favoring any of the South Korean candidates.
"We shouldn't interfere in any way," said an aide to a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Whoever's elected, we're for."
Example of Philippines
The February, 1986, election in the Philippines stands as a paradigm of what U.S. policy makers are trying to avoid. In that race, Marcos was declared the winner, but the fraud on election day was so obvious and the results so questionable that they were immediately challenged by opposition forces. Aquino came to power only after some military leaders intervened on her behalf. The Aquino government took office suddenly and soon found itself torn among competing factions of its civilian and military leaderships.
In South Korea, U.S. policy makers say they are not concerned about the widespread vote fraud, ballot-rigging and stacked counting that tarnished the Philippine election, but they note that even a small number of contested ballots could affect the outcome. There are four main candidates for president, and the vote is expected to be very close.
Asked how the United States will judge whether the South Korean election has been a fair one, since only a limited contingent of American organizations will be allowed to watch the polls, Clark replied: "We're going to have to decide that one on the move."
One possibility, U.S. officials and analysts say, is that Roh could be declared the official winner by a slim margin, with opposition forces contesting the legitimacy of the election. Students could take to the streets, triggering a possible military counteraction.
Military Coup Possible
Another possibility U.S. sources see is that if Kim Dae Jung wins the election the military, which considers him a leftist, might intervene to keep him from taking office.
"I don't know what the South Korean military would do if he won," said an aide to a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "They really hate him."
The congressional aide said he did not think the military would intervene if another opposition candidate, Kim Young Sam, wins, but a Washington-based diplomat for an American ally disagreed. "Kim Young Sam is more moderate, and so the joke goes that if he wins, the South Korean military won't intervene until after the Olympics," the diplomat said.
U.S. officials, while trying to appear detached from the process, have been trying to warn the South Korean military not to disrupt the balloting or overturn the results after election day. But the carefully worded American policy statements appear to leave some uncertainty about how strong the U.S. response to military intervention would be.
According to a U.S. diplomat in Seoul, Sigur was to give a speech last week warning that any military disruption of the election would bring about "a fundamental change" in relations between the United States and South Korea.
Speech Apparently Softened
This tough language apparently was watered down and the reference to U.S.-Korean relations was omitted. Instead, in his speech Wednesday night to the World Affairs Council of Washington, Sigur said: "Anyone--supporters of the government or the opposition--who might attempt to subvert the election process or put aside the results of a fair and open selection risks the condemnation of history, the Korean people and the world's democratic community."
Barring any military intervention, U.S. efforts after the election will focus on promoting reconciliation and the formation of an effective government--apparently by trying to persuade the winning candidate to include representatives of the rival camps and by persuading the losers to accept the role of loyal opposition.
"If there is a fair election, it looks like the winner is going to come into office with 35% of the vote cast," said Harding, of the Brookings Institution. "In other words, the winner will come in with a vote total that would be a landslide loss in a U.S. presidential race."
Throughout the last few months, U.S. officials involved in South Korean affairs have been quietly talking about the virtues of some form of coalition government.
"You know, even President (John F.) Kennedy appointed some Republicans," said one. Kennedy appointed two Republicans among the 10 members of his Cabinet.
Chun Could Emigrate
One other potential U.S. role might be to help President Chun get settled overseas after he leaves office in February. If Chun were to remain in Seoul, he would be in a position to exert behind-the-scenes influence on South Korean politics. There have been persistent but unconfirmed reports that he is planning to move to the United States.
If a democratically elected president takes office in February, it will mark a profound change both for South Korean politics and for U.S. policy.
When Chun took power in 1980, after the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung Hee, the U.S. military supported him. At that time, a senior U.S. military official explained: "Peace and stability are important to the United States here, and national security and internal stability surely come before political liberalization."