S. Koreans Vote Amid Fears of Trouble Ahead
For the first time in 16 years, voters went to the polls today to choose a new president, in an election that will shape a new future for South Korea but is also expected to ignite trouble almost immediately.
The possibilities for postelection unrest, observers say, range from scattered student demonstrations that police could easily suppress to a coup or a nationwide uprising or even a combination of the latter two. Only the remote possibility of a landslide victory for one of the three leading candidates holds out a hope for a calm aftermath.
In a country where “the art of graceful defeat is virtually unknown,” as City Editor Chong Un Bung of the Korea Times wrote recently, no one expects the result to be accepted peacefully.
Stability at Stake
At stake is the very stability of a country to whose security the United States has committed 43,000 troops. Also in the balance is the leadership structure of government and business that has lifted the country from abject poverty in 1961, when the late President Park Chung Hee staged a coup, to the brink of being an advanced industrialized nation.
On one side in the contest are Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, two longtime advocates of democracy. Both have spent their entire political careers in the opposition and both declare that the main goal of the election is to “end military rule.”
On the other side is Roh Tae Woo, a former general like the man he helped to gain power in a 1980 coup, President Chun Doo Hwan. He now promises to implement full-blown democracy and “wipe out all vestiges of authoritarianism.”
“An opposition victory would produce such a shock that the entire government machinery would be paralyzed for months,” said one mid-level bureaucrat, noting that the new president, who will have a five-year term, will not be inaugurated until next Feb. 25.
“Our planning would come to a complete halt,” said one of the nation’s leading businessmen, who asked not to be named. “A change in leadership here can mean life and death to any company. The government can kill any firm by just ordering banks to cut off its loans.”
Social unrest, a decline in productivity, an economic slowdown--all are among the gloomy possibilities listed by Establishment figures. And if those forecasts come true, they add, a military coup would follow in three months, six months or a year.
“If a coup does occur, it will bring a worse military dictatorship this time than Korea has ever had before,” the leading businessman said.
If much of the speculation about impending trouble appears overdrawn, the worry that gives rise to it is very real. Never in its 39-year history has South Korea changed leaders peacefully or democratically. A student uprising, a coup, an assassination and another coup brought about the previous transitions.
This time, the election campaign started with a new promise of democracy from the nation’s military rulers but quickly deteriorated into a struggle of personalities, leaving many voters in a dilemma--sharing the Establishment’s worry over the unknown but embracing a nearly universal longing for greater democracy.
So important do South Koreans consider the selection of a new leader that more than 90% of the 25.9 million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots. However, many have put off until the last minute deciding how they will vote, opinion polls show. Some analysts say as many as 20% may make up their minds on the way to the polling stations today.
38% Were Undecided
Just two weeks ago, one opinion poll found 38% of the voters still undecided.
None of the three leading candidates disagrees publicly with the view that sweeping democratic reforms must be carried out.
Roh, 55, the ruling Democratic Justice Party’s nominee, has even said that he, as a man who knows the military, is best qualified to end military rule. In any event, he argues, military rule effectively ended June 29 when he accepted the opposition’s demand for a direct presidential election instead of a rubber-stamp indirect ballot that would have guaranteed his victory.
The opposition, however, has failed to take full advantage of Roh’s decision to make this election a real race. Its inability to field a single opponent against him has deprived South Koreans of a clear-cut choice between the government and the opposition.
Varieties of Turmoil
Speculation on what form the postelection turmoil might take varies according to how the vote might go--not only who wins but by how large a margin.
Roh, Chun’s handpicked nominee, has said that he expects student demonstrations if he wins, even in an honest vote count. A convincing margin of victory would help him claim legitimacy, even with less than 50% of the votes, and blame the opposition for inviting its own downfall by fielding two candidates.
Last Saturday, however, Roh declared that he will set up a strong government “if I win by a margin of even one vote.”
The opposition warns that a Roh victory, by any margin, will bring trouble far worse than just student demonstrations. They assert that he can win only by fraud and warn that his victory would bring a major nationwide uprising.
Students Make Plans
Student demonstrations are a near-certainty. On the campus of Yonsei University, Lee Hyung Joon, a 20-year-old biochemistry major, said Tuesday that students have been told by their council leaders to gather at Seoul’s city hall plaza at noon Thursday, the day after the election.
“If Roh Tae Woo is elected,” he said, “the resistance struggle will begin then.”
A victory by Kim Dae Jung, 63, the nominee of the Party for Peace and Democracy and the sole opposition candidate in the last direct presidential election in 1971, would be greeted by his near-fanatic supporters with celebrations in the streets, which themselves could cause trouble. Ruling party fears that boisterous crowds might press for the immediate overthrow of Chun, without waiting for him to hand over power on Feb. 25, appear extreme but not out of the question.
Far more ominous would be the prospect of another coup staged by the armed forces, whose leaders hate and distrust Kim, whom they consider a radical leftist.
Sentence Was Suspended
In 1980, the incumbent government convicted him of sedition and sentenced him to death. Only last July did he regain his civil rights after his original sentence was reduced and then suspended.
A victory for Kim Young Sam, 59, the Reunification Democratic Party’s candidate and a longtime opposition rival of Kim Dae Jung, appears to offer the greatest hope for the least disruption. But even such an outcome for the moderate, compromise-minded leader might spur turmoil in the southwest Cholla region, where years of mistreatment by leaders born in the southeast Kyongsang region have nurtured frustrations that reached a boiling point in the campaign.
Kim Young Sam is a native of the Kyongsang region and although Kim Dae Jung, Cholla’s champion, has said publicly that he would endorse his rival if the voters pick him, no one is certain how strong or how effective that endorsement would be.
Roh, however, has two strikes against him as far as Cholla citizens are concerned. Not only is he a Kyongsang native, but, more important, he played a major role in Chun’s coup, which precipitated demonstrations in one of the Cholla region’s two main cities, Kwangju, in May, 1980. Brutality by army paratroopers transformed the protests into a full-blown rebellion, the suppression of which cost 194 lives by official count.
Cholla Region Violence
Rallies in the two Cholla provinces by both rivals of Kim Dae Jung spurred serious violence during the campaign.
“Cholla people won’t sit on their hands this time,” said one college professor, himself a Cholla native.
As if in preparation for rejection of a Roh victory, the opposition has hammered on the theme that the government is illicitly mobilizing its resources on Roh’s behalf and that the ruling party intends to secure Roh’s victory through manipulation and rigging.
On Sunday, the fourth major candidate, Kim Jong Pil, 61, a strongman of the 1961-79 Park era, joined the two Kims in setting up a watchdog committee to monitor the vote-counting, adding a conservative voice to the liberal outcry.
All parties have engaged in vote-buying to some extent, analysts say. The opposition Kims reportedly were not attempting to buy votes directly but rather making payments to power-brokers, who, in turn, were expected to round up votes for them.
But agreement was widespread that the most flagrant practices have been carried out by the ruling Democratic Justice Party, which has the most money. Roh, South Korean newsmen said, was paying 50,000 won ($62.50) a vote.
Many of the charges of illicit ruling party electioneering appear to be true, analysts say. But except for the obvious bias of the state-owned television network, few can be documented, they add.
Kim Dae Jung complains that television news clips of his speeches only showed him displaying anger, never smiling. Kim Young Sam complains that television coverage always focused on his slips of the tongue or mispronunciations--in particular, his inability to pronounce the word “absolutely” in Korean, which he uses frequently in an attempt to project decisiveness.
Roh’s Ties to Chun
Roh has declared that he would rather lose than win a rigged vote, but years of lying by the government in official announcements and the government’s control of the mass media have destroyed the ruling party’s credibility. Roh has tried to show that he is different from the highly unpopular Chun. But his close association with the president, dating back to junior high school and running through a quarter-century military career that included roles in a 1979 mutiny and the 1980 coup, has proved a difficult hurdle.
South Koreans also know that the ruling camp, if it wishes, can draw upon ballot-rigging techniques refined in five previous direct presidential elections.
Questions about whether ballots cast by 854,700 absentees will be marked fairly appear inevitable. The absentee ballots will be mixed with other ballots so that no separate accounting will be possible. They constitute 3.3% of the eligible voters, a key bloc in an election that may be won by as little as 1% of the ballots cast.
Tabulations of the vote, however, are expected to be accurate.
“Procedures for vote-counting are quite tight and impressive,” a Western diplomat said. Voter-counters “are committed to counting the ballots fairly. I think you can rely upon them doing that.”
The opposition candidates also have traded charges of dirty tricks. Even as the candidates wound up their campaign schedules Tuesday with small rallies in the Seoul area, Kim Dae Jung said at a press conference that Kim Young Sam’s campaign had printed a one-page party flyer declaring that Kim Dae Jung had withdrawn from the race.
“It is unprecedented in the nation’s election history that a presidential candidate has concocted such a wicked rumor as this,” Kim Dae Jung fumed. Twenty aides from his own party had broken into a printing company early in the day, he said, and seized the material.
Later, at Kim Young Sam’s campaign headquarters, election committee chairman Kim Jae Kwang admitted to a reporter that his party had produced a flyer saying Kim Dae Jung was considering withdrawing from the race. He said that was an interpretation of developments by the editor.
But he denied any knowledge of a subsequent flyer, purportedly put out by his party, that said Kim had withdrawn and included a faked question-and-answer session with Kim. He said he did not know how many copies of either flyer reached the streets.
For all of the doubts about Roh’s association with the Chun regime, many voters are aware that the authoritarian rule of the last seven years also leaves a legacy of economic growth inherited from the Park era.
From abject poverty in 1961, when Park carried out his coup, South Korea’s economy has grown to a gross national product of $120 billion expected this year, double that of 1980, when Chun seized power. Per capita GNP, which will reach $2,870 this year, is expected to more than double to $6,000 by 1993, when the next president’s term ends, with 7% annual growth, far less than the 13% GNP increase expected this year.
Foreign debt, which reached a peak of $46.9 billion in 1986, creating widespread concern in South Korea, already has been reduced to $35.5 billion.
Exports Expected to Swell
The next president also is expected to see the nation increase its exports by 1993 to $85 billion--or about the size of its entire GNP as recently as 1985, making South Korea one of the world’s 10 largest exporting nations.
Roh’s assertions that exports, growth, stability and even next year’s Summer Olympics in Seoul will be “washed away” if the opposition wins have left many voters with a dilemma.
Two South Korean couples, for example, said last weekend that they were still trying to make up their minds between Roh, who they felt would ensure economic growth, and Kim Young Sam, who they felt would ensure democracy. On Monday, both said they still had not reached a conclusion.
Many feel that Kim Dae Jung would implement too much change too rapidly. Like Roh, he suffers a credibility problem, born from prejudice against his Cholla origins and from 15 years of the government’s portraying him as an alleged “radical.”
Top-Level Changes Seen
Kim Dae Jung has promised to retain all but top-level bureaucrats. But even that assurance presumes a sweeping purge of top positions that is likely to affect hundreds or thousands of officials, especially among the military’s top brass, nearly all of whom are Kyongsang natives.
American trade negotiators, accustomed to dealing with all-powerful bureaucrats, are bracing for new complaints about their demands that South Korea open its markets, complaints from interest groups whose voices often have been overridden. Rising nationalism, which often takes the form of anti-Americanism, also is likely to get a greater airing in a free press.
No matter who wins, a long-standing business-government partnership, including government suppression of wages and labor unions, will change. Predictions are rampant of strikes next spring when annual wage increases are fixed.
Even mundane campaign promises--such as one made by both Kim Dae Jung and Roh for an eight-hour workday--presage near-revolutionary change. Workers now commonly put in 11 hours a day.
Most of all, despite their desire for greater freedom, South Koreans have shown no inclination for weak leaders. Kim Young Sam lacks the image of a strong leader that Kim Dae Jung projects. But whoever is elected, the next president, if he gains office without majority support, will start off as an underdog, forced to seek compromise and accommodation with his foes.
That fact itself bodes ill. For in South Korean political tradition, compromise has been equated with surrender, and almost always has lost out to polarization.
THE THREE LEADING CANDIDATES Roh Tae Woo
Candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. . . . Now 55 years old, was a professional soldier for 26 years. . . . Moved onto the main stage of national politics last June as President Chun Doo Hwan’s handpicked nominee. . . . Was a classmate of Chun in Taegu, attended the Korean Military Academy with Chun during the Korean War. . . . His military career nearly paralleled Chun’s through service schools in the United States, combat assignments in Vietnam and then at the top levels of the military. . . . In 1980, supported coup in which Chun took power, and the next year, was brought into government by the president, moving through a series of government and Olympic jobs. . . . Succession to the presidency seemed assured until anti-government demonstrations swept the country last June. . . . Roh accepted opposition demands for reform and threw the election open to all comers. . . . Has waged a game campaign against the shadow of his military background. . . . Keeps his personal life shielded, but acquaintances say he is fond of poetry and music. . . . Married, with two children.
Kim Dae Jung
Candidate of the Party for Peace and Democracy. . . . 63 years old, a political martyr and populist orator. . Has inspired the most passionate following of all the candidates. . . . Hailed by students and blue-collar workers as the coming savior of democratic rights. . . . Expected by people in his native Cholla region to reverse decades of discrimination against their region. . . . Regarded by military leaders as a dangerous leftist. . . . Has stood for the National Assembly seven times and has won four times. . . . In 1971, in the last free and direct election in South Korea, lost a close race for the presidency to the late Park Chung Hee. . . . Best known outside the country for his personal ordeals. . . . Has been kidnaped, jailed, kept under house arrest, harassed and sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of sedition. . . . Has little formal education beyond high school but is a student of history and economics and is the author of several books. . . . Spends his few private moments tending a garden at his home in Seoul, a hobby he acquired in prison. . . . A Roman Catholic, has three sons by his first wife and has remarried since her death.
Kim Young Sam
Candidate of the Reunification Democratic Party. . . . 59 years old, a moderate who says he is “the man who ought to be elected.” . . . Has fought long and hard for democratic reform, human rights and the presidency. . . . As a high school student in Pusan, he tacked a sign outside his room that said, “Kim Young Sam, the Future President of Korea.” . . . Son of a prosperous provincial family, entered politics early and was first elected to the National Assembly at age 25. . . . Has served seven terms, all in opposition. . . . Was a propagandist in a “student army” during the Korean War and later studied philosophy at Seoul National University. . . . A Presbyterian elder. . . . Has been in the forefront of the fight against human rights abuses under military-dominated governments. . . . As a result spent three years under house arrest and five years in political banishment in the early 1980s. . . . In 1971 lost a bid for the opposition presidential nomination to Kim Dae Jung. . . . Opponents say he is not bright enough to run the country, but he says he is bright enough to choose people who can. . . . Physically fit, he jogs every morning before breakfast. . . . Married, with five children.
Times staff writer Nick B. Williams Jr. also contributed to this article.