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South Korea: progress and excesses

THE rough treatment given Kim Dae Jung and his American supporters on their arrival in Seoul raises anew two serious questions: Is the Chun Doo Hwan regime in the Republic of Korea (ROK) a ``dictatorship,'' and does it deserve continued United States support? Mr. Kim spent the last two years speaking across the US, denouncing the Chun government as a dictatorship that systematically oppresses the human rights and democratic aspirations of the South Korean people. He charges that the economic prosperity and national security earned for the ROK by the military-backed regime was achieved at too high a cost in terms of freedom and liberty. Just as regularly as its harshest critics have denounced the Chun regime as a brutal dictatorship and urged Washington to increase its pressure for reform, the regime's apologists routinely try to rationalize Seoul's excesses by citing Korea's weak indigenous democratic tradition and the need to maintain domestic discipline in the face of a continued external threat from North Korea. The regime and its friends in this country argue that the ROK is making significant progress and should be praised for its successes and not criticized for its failures.

What are objective observers to make of this dichotomy? Is either assessment accurate? Contradictory though it may seem, I suggest that both sides are partially correct and that the truth rests somewhere in between. The Chun government (like Park Chung Hee's before it) is an authoritarian regime that often displays dictatorial tendencies. Its suppression of virtually all the political freedoms Americans associate with democracy is glaring. It is not, however, total ``dictatorship,'' demonstrated by the existence of constrained political liberties. The maligned ROK political system is a controlled and centralized ``command'' system, much as the often-praised ROK economy is a centralized, planned system. Both display the hierarchical authoritarianism for which Confucian cultures are noted.

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At the risk of being labeled an apologist for Seoul, one must point out that Korea's political culture is basically unegalitarian, hierarchical, and faction-ridden. Thus, it is predisposed to a strong leader. If Kim Dae Jung or any other civilian reformist should ever oust the military-backed government, there is every likelihood that he, too, would be an authoritarian leader. No one should be naive about this reality of Korean politics.

Nor should one slight the truism that the Chun regime, for all its warts, is head and shoulders above the iron-fisted dictatorship ruling in Pyongyang. To understand the scale upon which such differences must be measured, try to visualize the reception any reform-minded rival to Kim Il Sung would receive if he tried to return to North Korea accompanied by foreign supporters. The very fact that the media have covered extensively the trauma of Kim Dae Jung's return says something profound about the existence of certain freedoms in South Korea. This, and the existence of both the officially sanctioned token opposition parties and the strident unauthorized opposition that enjoyed surprising success in the recent election, demonstrate that some progress has been made toward greater pluralism in South Korea.

On the other hand, Kim Dae Jung is correct when he charges the Chun regime with gross excesses. The faade of democracy on South Korean society is thin and desperately needs shoring up, lest the whole structure collapse under the weight of mounting domestic pressure. The ROK, via its many positive achievements, has certainly earned the continued support of the US, but that support should remain contingent on accelerated political reforms by Seoul.

The Chun regime has given itself a black eye by its recent actions. Kim's decision to return to Korea accompanied by prominent Americans was a master stroke, although a risky one. Abusing Kim is one thing, but the assault on Americans by Mr. Chun's thugs was a devastating mistake that Seoul will long rue. Kim played a high-stakes game by bringing foreign witnesses, because Korea's xenophobia tends to feed popular resentment against Koreans who use foreign support as a crutch.

The Chun regime could still rally South Koreans to its side by linking Kim to Americans considered busybodies who stick their noses in where they are not wanted. Such a move might find a receptive audience among South Koreans who chafe under US pressures and applaud Seoul when it stands up to Washington. If Chun had not already used force on Americans, he might try such a tactic with impunity. Now, however, resorting to such an approach probably would exacerbate the bad publicity Seoul has inflicted on itself.

Swift resolution of the heightened political tensions in South Korea is unlikely. Kim Dae Jung confronts implacable hard-liners within the regime who consider impatient reformers to be a threat to the ROK's existence and see Kim as a ``communist.'' In this context compromise will be difficult, if not impossible, and further unrest must be expected. Clearly, substantive reforms are required before any semblance of political tranquillity can emerge in South Korea. Should domestic turmoil remain unresolved, it promises to damage Seoul's prospects for successfully hosting the 1988 Olympics.

For a country that is increasingly image-conscious, South Korea must shape up. Even if the Chun regime can point to evidence of political reform, perceptions of dictatorial behavior will likely undercut its claims. Leaders in Seoul would do well to bear in mind a Korean folk saying: A prudent person does not adjust his shoes in the middle of someone else's strawberry patch. In short, the Chun government needs to become far more sensitive to both the appearance and the reality of wrongdoing.

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Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif. The views expressed are his own.

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