President Chun Doo Hwan, conceding that there has been no "tangible progress" on the issue during his presidency, predicted Friday that talks aimed at "peaceful coexistence" with North Korea could begin as early as next year.
Relations between the two Koreas are icy now, but Chun told reporters that time is running against the Communist regime in Pyongyang.
"If North Korea refuses to take part in (this year's) Seoul Olympics, it will further isolate itself from the international community and will have to remain in the backwaters," he declared, adding later: "North Korea will face the realization that its goals are untenable and unrealistic. How long can they keep their borders sealed, . . . no private sector, two meals a day. I don't think this can long be tolerated."
'We Know Where Danger Is'
The president, who leaves office Feb. 25, said he expects North Korea to try by any means to disrupt the Summer Olympic Games. But with teams in Seoul from the Soviet Union and China, Pyongyang's major backers, he said, "I don't think it would use that period to start a war." He added: "We know where the danger is. We know how to deal with it."
By 1989 or the early 1990s, he said, isolation will change North Korea's "wild dream of communizing all of Korea by force. . . . We will really sit down and recognize each other and talk. Slowly, mutual confidence will result."
In a press conference at a guest house in the presidential compound, his first in Seoul with a group of foreign reporters, Chun defended his record in office and chided the political opposition as "ungentlemanly" for refusing to concede its defeat in December's presidential election. He made no apologies, and he claimed as the major achievements of a 7 1/2-year presidency:
-- The peaceful transfer of presidential power, the first in South Korea's 39-year history. Chun will be succeeded by Roh Tae Woo, his personal choice as the ruling party nominee in the December election. Roh won with 36.6% of the vote over a divided opposition.
-- The doubling of the country's gross national product, from $60.3 billion in 1980 to $120 billion last year. "I am grateful and pleased," he said of the country's economic accomplishments over the last seven years, including the mushrooming trade surplus of the last two years.
"I know I have exactly 26 days to go," the usually stern, 57-year-old former general noted with a smile. "The first thing I want to do is rest. It was a rather stressful occupation being the president."
Never a popular leader--"politics is not my profession," he remarked at one point--Chun has been the target of fierce verbal attacks and ridicule from political opponents and dissidents since he assumed the presidency in August, 1980.
A little-known general when President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in October, 1979, Chun quickly consolidated power. He declared martial law in May, 1980, and suppressed an ensuing civilian uprising in the southern city of Kwangju with brutal military force. By government count, 194 civilians were killed in Kwangju, and Chun has never been able to erase the stain on his leadership.
He told reporters Friday that the Kwangju conflict was "unfortunate, tragic and regrettable" and said he hopes the scars will soon be healed. But Chun accepted no personal blame, insisting that Kwangju and martial law were the products of turbulent times that followed the assassination of Park.
"The country itself was in peril, the safety of the people," he said.
'Job Was Thrust Upon Me'
To a later question, he responded that he did not seek the presidency, "The job was thrust upon me." And he insisted that he took power under "legitimate procedures."
Asked about the possibility of another military takeover in South Korea, the president answered promptly: "No, it will not happen again. It should not happen again. And if it does, Korea will bring misfortune upon itself."
Security was tight at the presidential guest house. Guards prohibited reporters from taking tape recorders into the press conference, and one group was told to remove any rings from their right hands, an apparent precaution for the presidential handshake.
A government information officer said Chun had granted a handful of exclusive interviews with foreign correspondents during his presidency, and had held press conferences on his travels abroad, but never before met with a large group of foreign reporters in South Korea. Nearly 100 correspondents took part.
Meanwhile, attempts by the ruling Democratic Justice Party and three opposition parties to set a date and adopt a formula for new National Assembly elections faltered, and a special Assembly session called to find a solution was recessed. Ruling party spokesmen said talks would continue and that the Assembly will be reconvened Feb. 10.