South Korea's strong man, Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan, has taken another large step toward achieving absolute control over the country. The United States, which wants the interrupted progress toward democratic rule to continue, is engaged in a subtle contest of wills with the general and his friends.
The South Korean people themselves, emotionally drained by the trauma of escalating student demonstrations and the tragedy of Kwangju, are outwardly passive. Quietly, many of them say they are cheering the US on. Some accuse Washington of being too lukewarm on the issue of democracy vs. dictatorship.
On May 31, two ceremonies took place in the Blue House, the official residence of President Choi Kyu-ha. The first, open to a press pool, established a 25-man Special Committee for National Security Measures. The second, secretly held in an adjoining room, set up a 30-man "standing committee" of the special committee.
General Chon is a member of the special committee and chairman of the standing committee. Many political observers believe the latter to be the mechanism General Chon and his closest military associates intend to use to take over the country's regular administrative machinery, complementing the military hold they grasped in a minicoup last Dec. 12.
Among these associates are Maj. Gen. Ro Tae Woo, commander of the capitol garrison command, and Maj. Gen. Chung Ho Young, commander of the special forces. Both are classmates of General Chon and played a prominent role in the December coup, in which virtually the entire military leadership was reshuffled in their favor -- a move that angered the US.
Generals Ro and Chung are members both of the special committee and the standing committee. The difference between the two seems to be that while the former is composed largely of senior Cabinet ministers and members of the military hierarchy, the latter will be a 30-man working-level group divided into a number of subcommittees. Although 12 to 13 civilians sit on the standing committee, only two of its subcommittees (construction and agriculture) are known to be headed by civilians.
The special committee was inaugurated with fanfare. President Choi's speech at the first meeting emphasized the need for "public order and social stability." The president himself chairs the 25-man committee, which includes ten civilian officials, five military officers, and ten presidential appointees (nine of whom are generals). General Chon is listed twice, once among the civilian members and once among the military officials.
The new structure seems unwieldy. Sensitive to accusations that the new committee is in effect a junta, the government has said it does not in any way supersede the Cabinet. It stresses that it is purely an advisory body. Officially, the special committee was designed to coordinate the workings of the state council (Cabinet) and martial-law authorities.
In effect, the new machinery gives the military a legitimate voice and role in all aspects of civil affairs. General Chon and his associates are well positioned for an ultimate political takeover. They would be following the example of the late President Park who started out with an all-military Supreme Council for National Reconstruction in 1961 and moved on to be elected president in 1963.
Despite recent events, President Choi has said there is no change in his plan for a transition to an elected government under a new constitution by early next year. The statement sounds hollow. The country is under complete martial law, two of the three prospective presidential candidates are in jail, and the National Assembly is closed. Troops occupy university campuses. There is no freedom of speech or assembly, and rigid press censorship has been imposed.
The scenario General Chon and his associates apparently envisage is one in which the former ruling party, the Democratic Republicans, will again become the political vehicle of government rule, but without its controversial and jailed president, former Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil. The former opposition party, the New Democrats, would continue as the main opposition party under the only prospective presidential candidate not to be imprisoned, Kim Young Sam. But those loyal to the jailed Kim Dae Jong, presidential candidate in 1971, would be purged. The result: an extension of the unpopular Yushin system under which President Park governed the country for seven years, until his assassination last Oct. 26.
An eruption of student protests seems unlikely in the near future. Most activist student leaders are in jail or in hiding. Campuses are occupied by the martial-law authorities. With the economy precarious, the country has a longing for stability. There is no great confidence that martial law can do much more than put a temporary lid on seething feelings below the surface.
An outright military invasion by North Korea seems unlikely. But that does not exclude the sending of agents or attempts to exploit whatever opportunities may arise.
Washington, for its part, while repeatedly expressing displeasure with the actions of General Chon and his friends, so far has refrained from threatening to withdraw any of its 39,000 troops, or reducing military sales to South Korea, or even cooling off economic relations. This is why some South Koreans accuse the US of lukewarmness or tacit acquiescence in the military takeover.
This view is not shared by all South Korean observers. Some believe that the longer the US continues to make plain its unhappiness with General Chon's actions, the more uneasy elements within the South Korean power structure, notably the generals, must become. If there is one appreciation that all South Koreans share, regardless of politics, it is this: Ultimately, only the US can guarantee South Korea's security against the threat from the North.
This is why General Chon himself has emphasized that his relations with US authorities remain amicable. A pro-government legislator also sought to give the impression that US Ambassador William Gleysteen had approved the declaration of full martial law May 17. In a highly unusual move, a US Embassy spokesman recently visited South Korean newspapers to deny the legislator's remarks as "a serious distortion." His comments were censored.
Nevertheless, such indications of US displeasure might delay the total imposition of authoritarian rule. At best they might ultimately help to reverse the present course of events. In the process they might cause a split in the military and a grab for power by other generals or even colonels.
The alternative, to give the appearance of acquiescence, would alienate millions of South Koreans whose interest in security remains paramount but who feel they have outgrown the kind of authoritarianism that General Chon seems to be seeking to institutionalize. After all they have had 18 years of it. Most of them think they now deserve something better.