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South Korea: Is it the `next Philippines'?

WITH the newfound enthusiasm for imposing American-style democracy around the world, a lot of attention is being paid to South Korea. Korea, it is said, may be the next Philippines. It has autocratic rule and a restive political opposition. Opposition demonstrators have been out in the thousands in recent days, and opposition leaders are saying archly that they hope Korea's President Chun Doo Hwan ``will not be a second Marcos.''

Well President Chun is not a second Marcos, and while there is the same political restlessness in Korea as existed in the Philippines, there are many critical differences between the two countries.

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President Marcos was a despot who tried to consolidate his power for life. He and his wife, it turns out, were plunderers of their country's wealth who made the Brink's robbers look like nickel-and-dime sidewalk pickpockets.

By contrast, President Chun has set a specific date for the termination of his own presidency and has not cluttered the presidential suite with millionaire cronies on the make.

In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos ran the economy into the ground. By contrast, South Korea is booming.

Until I made a few visits to Korea in recent years, I had not been there since the 1960s. The development over those years is breathtaking. The Seoul skyline is now a jagged montage of skyscrapers and modern apartment buildings. From a helicopter you see broad arterial highways and flyovers and swirling interchanges from Seoul up to the demilitarized zone, which separates booming South Korea from the austere Communist North.

Thus, while unemployment and poverty are rampant in the Philippines, South Korea is abustle with energy and ambition as Koreans storm into an industrial and technological age that some observers assert is destined to make their country the next Japan.

The Korean economy does, of course, have its ups and downs. But even a down year that causes Korean economists to grimace often looks healthy by comparison with less-vigorous nations. Thus per capita gross national product in Korea is almost triple that in the Philippines.

Another difference: Whereas corruption, ill-discipline, and outmoded leadership at the top had demoralized the Army of the Philippines, the Korean Army is taut, well-trained, and all business. During the Vietnam war, captured training manuals made it clear the Viet Cong sought to avoid tangling with the tough South Korean contingent. At home, facing a North Korean regime that regularly attempts infiltration, sabotage, and assassination (and which did succeed in killing key South Korean Cabinet ministers in a Rangoon bomb attack), the Army is alert and efficient.

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While the differences between Korea and the Philippines are substantial, this is not to say that the Koreans do not face major problems:

There are limitations on free speech and political activity.

There is criticism of the way President Chun, an Army general, took power after the murder of President Park Chung Hee.

Current demonstrations are designed to change the South Korean Constitution and the method of electing a new president when President Chun's term expires in l988. The demonstrating opponents want a direct presidential election instead of indirect election by electoral college, which they argue favors the incumbent regime.

We are going to be hearing much more about all this during the months ahead. The US has not been supine on the issue of human rights in South Korea. Mr. Reagan has interceded in the case of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, and although Mr. Kim is under restriction, his lot has improved since the time, only a few years ago, when he faced the threat of execution. The administration has also regularly counseled the Seoul regime on the need for democratic reform.

But a simple replay of the upheaval in the Philippines is not in the cards for South Korea. Nor should US foreign policy be tailored to that end. Encouragement of freedom's spread should be a foundation stone of this policy. But nations and peoples and circumstances in those countries vary. Such factors must determine whether the US should intervene, when to intervene, and how.

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