Korean Surprise

Opposition politicians charged foul and fraud even before the polls opened for South Korea's National Assembly elections this week, but if the government indeed had it in mind to rig the results its efforts proved remarkably inept. When the ballot counting ended, President Roh Tae Woo's Democratic Justice Party had lost its legislative majority and with it the chance for a more or less free hand in shaping Korean affairs over the next four years. The defeat was as humiliating as it was unexpected.

Perhaps most unexpected was that the two main opposition parties were able to run so strongly despite evident public disgust over their failure to unite, and despite the well-financed campaign the ruling party mounted. Otherwise this election can be seen as further confirming what December's presidential election foretold, that most Koreans are not happy with the policies or the past practices of the Democratic Justice Party. The popular mood seems clearly to favor a broadening of liberties and a more equal distribution of Korea's growing economic wealth. Roh has indicated his own support for these goals, though not yet programmatically. They can be had, but only if Roh and the opposition-dominated Assembly can find ways to work together in the nation's behalf.

The barriers are formidable. Korea's political culture does not encourage compromise; any agreement among enemies to cooperate invites suspicions of moral impurity. The election results also appear to intensify the country's bitter regional antagonisms. It seems likely, too, that Kim Dae Jung, whose party will hold the largest number of opposition seats, and Kim Young Sam will continue their rivalry for the leadership of the anti-government forces, with each probably trying to outdo the other in showing hostility toward Roh's government.

Right now it appears that Roh probably won't be able to form a legislative coalition with Kim Jong Pil, the right-winger whose party won 35 Assembly seats. It seems even less likely that Kim Jong Pil would ally himself with the other two Kims--assuming they could get together--in a consistent anti-Roh majority. What may be shaping up, then, democratic elections or not, is a time of deepening confrontation, legislative paralysis, apparent instability. This is the kind of uncertain and unhappy political climate that in the past has set military coup-makers to plotting.

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