United States security policy for the Korean peninsula has been directly challenged, not by communist North Korea, but by Gen. Chon Doo Hwan, de facto ruler of South Korea, Washington's own presumed ally.
President Choi Kyu Hah's sudden resignation Aug. 16 in order, the figurehead president said, to promote "a peaceful transfer of power," makes it virtually certain that General Chon will be chosen his successor within a matter of days.
Disregarding Washington's repeated expressions of unhappiness with his authoritarian ways, General Chon instead caused the strictly controlled South Korean press to publicize widely a highly selective version of an ill-timed interview given by Gen. John A. Wickham, commander of the United Nations forces there, to an American newspaper. It gave the impression that the US would support General Chon's assumption of the presidency.
President choi's resignation quickly followed. Its significance is that by giving up his office now, instead of after the adoption of a new, hopefully more liberal constitution, Mr. Choi has made it possible for General Chon to be chosen quite legally under the present highly authoritarian Yushin Constitution imposed by the late President Park in 1972.
No time-consuming direct election that would offer South Koreans a choice of candidates is necessary. All that is required is for the same electoral college that gave President Park successive terms in office and that confirmed Mr. Choi ad his successor after Mr. Park was assassinated last Oct. 26 to choose General Chon as the new president.
The United States has consistently said that it does not oppose General Chon or anyone else as individuals. But it has indicated that following President Park's assassination, the freeing of political prisoners, and the decision to draft a new, more democratic constitution, any new government or leader must have a demonstratedly wide basis of popular support.
It has been Washington's consistent view that without such demonstrated wide popular support there will be no political stability in South Korea and that this lack of political stability will in turn gravely threaten the security siuation on the Korean peninsula. Communist North Korea is ready to take advantage of any target of opportunity that could offer itself, and a politically disaffcted South Korea would be a most tempting target. General Chon's upporters claim there is no significant evidence of popular opposition to his rule. His opponents charge that the reason they can say that is that since the imposition of nationwide martial law May 17 the military authorities have progressively muzzled every possible avenue of freely expressed popular opinion.
The three politicans most commonly regarded as contestants for the presidency were jailed or put under house arrest. Kim Jong Pil was accused of corruption and embezzlement and forced to give up all his positions and to retire into cloistered private life. Kim Young Sam, placed under house arrest, recently announced his retirement from politics because of his complete inability to be an effective opposition leader. Kim dae Jung, the most formidable of he three Kims, is now on trial on treason charges that could lead to the death sentence.
The universities are closed, and many student leaders are under arrest or in hiding. The press, radio, and television are more thoroughly controlled than at any time except the most stringent days of the Park administration. Some of the most respected editors in the country have been purged.
Before the latest turn of events, Korean observers said that if General Chon felt he could marshal enough popular support to win a direct presidential election, he would stand as a candidate. If it seemed certain he could not do so, he would take the route of indirect election to the presidency. The second course appears to be the one he has chosen.
South Korean citizens face a painful dilemma. If they do nothing, they acquiesce in the legalization of unwanted authoritarian rule. If they oppose General Chon, they have no recourse but to take to the streets -- a costly, dangerous choice that can only offer North Korea and opportunities it seeks.
It was to avoid the necessity for such a dilemma that the United States consistently sought the evolution of a democratic process of selection. The foreclosure of this process promises a period of severe trial ahead for the long-suffering South Korean people.