Healing Efforts in Seoul

Genuine political efforts seem to be under way in South Korea to try to heal some of the deep wounds left by long and sometimes brutal years of authoritarian rule.

President-elect Roh Tae Woo, a former army general and a confidant of the unpopular departing President Chun Doo Hwan, is the moving force behind these efforts. Roh often talked during last fall’s presidential campaign of the need for domestic political reconciliation. His electoral victory last month, against a divided opposition, apparently hasn’t diminished his interest in this theme. Now, five weeks away from his inauguration, Roh is giving concrete form to his rhetoric. He has invited opposition political parties to propose some from within their own ranks to take positions in his cabinet.

This proposal stops well short of being a plan for coalition government. But it does indicate a willingness to broaden the base of his government by sharing some executive power. That is a gesture of considerable symbolic importance, given what has gone before. Legislative elections that are to be held sometime in the next few months could result in greater de facto power-sharing if the two major opposition parties win a majority of seats. That prospect shouldn’t dissuade the opposition from seriously exploring Roh’s invitation. What he seems to be offering is a chance to lay a foundation for greater political trust, cooperation and shared governing responsibility. In the context of Korea’s political culture these are not insignificant things.

These goals could be brought marginally closer by two other actions soon to be taken. An amnesty sometime before Feb. 25 is expected to free most of the 1,000 or so prisoners held on political charges. And the government has reaffirmed Roh’s pledge for official compensation to the relatives of those killed in the 1980 civilian uprising in Kwangju. These welcome moves can’t assure that Roh’s presidency will be unaffected by the anger and bitterness accumulated under years of harsh rule. But for now at least Roh is doing as well as saying the right things, and for that he deserves credit.