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.