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Slowly, slowly, authoritarian S. Korea seems to soften

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Ever so slightly, analysts here say, South Korea's image both at home and abroad has been improving. Reasons include strong, steady pressure to democratize the nation from the government's political opposition (and, on a much more subdued level, from the United States); coming National Assembly elections; and Seoul's desire to serve as host of a well-attended 1988 Summer Olympic Games.

Although each is ever suspicious of the other's motives, South Korea and North Korea, after a long lapse, have resumed bilateral talks on trade. They have also reopened Red Cross talks aimed at reuniting as many as 10 million family members divided by the Korean war.

Such increased contact with the North could help Seoul avert a rumored Soviet-bloc boycott of the 1988 Olympics. Although South Korea has no formal diplomatic ties with much of the communist world, recently it has been working particularly hard to improve its relations with China and the Soviet Union and insists all are welcome at the Olympics.

Former US Ambassador to South Korea William Gleysteen describes Seoul's new external policy as cautious but generally ''flexible and enlightened.''

Also, although many basic human freedoms are still firmly denied South Koreans by the authoritarian government of President Chun Doo Hwan, the former Army general has recently taken a number of small steps toward liberalization:

* Just a few days ago, Seoul lifted the political-activities ban on 84 more South Koreans, a move officially ''welcomed'' by the US. The most vocal and formidable political opponents of President Chun's regime, however, are among the 15 South Koreans still under a ban. Yet the number is considerably down from the 835 who were banned from voting, giving speeches, or running for office when Chun abolished all existing political parties in 1980.


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