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S. Korean President backs off from crackdown on students

South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan has backed down from a major political confrontation with the opposition. He announced last weekend that the government would delay introducing a campus ``stabilization'' law that would give his government new authority to crack down on student radicals.

The decision was the first sign of any softening in an escalating crackdown against the opposition that began to build last June. The Chun government was stunned by the opposition's unity over the issue -- as well as by international criticism -- and was looking for an excuse to backtrack, dissident leader Kim Young Sam said.

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Mr. Chun's retreat comes in the wake of an outpouring of public dissent over the proposed bill. The move created hope that political compromise may be possible in South Korea. But it also added fresh uncertainty about the government's political direction.

The ruling Democratic Justice Party was planning to force a vote on the bill in a special session of the National Assembly to be called this month. The bill would have empowered a nonjudicial panel to jail student activists for up to six months to undergo a reorientation program.

The government said it needed the legislation to give it more flexibility in dealing with rising leftism on the campuses. The new law, it said, would help keep students' cases out of the courts, where students would receive harsher penalties and acquire criminal records.

The opposition New Korea Democratic Party denounced the bill in the harshest terms. It said the extrajudicial procedure would violate constitutional rights and would lead to an abuse of government authority, allowing the government to use irregular procedures to remove from campuses students who merely called for democratic reforms.

The opposition party had launched a nationwide struggle against the bill, and opposition assemblymen were considering extralegal measures to defeat it -- staging a filibuster or sit-in in the assembly to prevent the government from taking a vote. The bill was publicly opposed by groups of lawyers, educators, clergy, and human-rights activists.

The groundswell of criticism peaked last week when Stephen Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan, chief prelate of the Roman Catholic Church in Korea, spoke out against the legislation, arguing that it would only fan extremism on the campuses. Many critics shared the cardinal's opinion that the bill would alienate students and would provoke leftism rather than prevent it.

It would be impossible to enforce the law, says Kim Young Sam, and it would only lead to the spread of communism. Mr. Kim also says the new law would give North Korea an excuse to break off talks with the South.

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Most segments of South Korea's political opposition share the government's strong antipathy to communism.

President Chun has good reason to seek a moderate course just now. He is especially keen to avoid any sign of social unrest in early October, when Seoul will play host to thousands of international visitors attending the annual World Bank-International Monetary Fund conference. Government officials have expressed fear that student groups may try to disrupt the conference.

The President's abrupt change of direction caught many observers by surprise. Just two weeks ago, Democratic Justice Party Chairman Roh Tae-woo told his party that now was the time for the government to assert its power. The President has purged several prominent moderate leaders in the party who opposed the bill.

The President's decision has been hailed as a victory for compromise and dialogue. But, according to one diplomat here, everything has its downside. The reversal makes the President look weak, and that may not sit well with the military or the security forces.

Although the government has shelved plans to force a vote on the bill this month, it says it will introduce the legislation in a regular session of the assembly during the fall. The opposition has again vowed to muster its forces to defeat the measure.

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