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S. Korea riper than ever for democracy? Analyst cites strong economy, maturing political opposition

``Long live democracy!'' shouted Kang Sung Ho, a young student activist, as he was led from a South Korean court not long ago. Mr. Kang had just received a five-year sentence for holding procommunist views -- a violation of this nation's stringent security laws. But as Kang departed, the courtroom crowd -- made up chiefly of Kang's hometown acquaintances -- launched into a hymn.

``We bear witness before God,'' a pastor said, ``that Kang Sung Ho is not a communist.''

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This scene in the southern city of Kwangju is typical of the deep political divisions now gripping South Korea. Proponents of rapid democratic reform, many of them supported by churches, are squared off against a cautious, military-backed government highly suspicious of any opposition.

The conflict between these liberal and traditional forces is not new. But it is sharpening more visibly in South Korea than in any of Asia's other newly industrialized countries, or NICs. Many analysts say the conditions needed for basic democratic change are riper now than at any time in the nation's 38-year history.

``In the past, democracy would have been problematic,'' says Han Sung Joo, a professor at Korea University. ``Now there are factors that make it more viable.''

To support his view, Professor Han cites a maturing political opposition movement and a business sector growing strong enough to function without constant official supervision. More broadly, steady economic advances have created an educated citizenry and a burgeoning middle class with a vested interest in both stability and political freedoms. At the same time, South Korea's growth pattern since the early 1960s has concentrated wealth dramatically -- creating a wide gulf between haves and have-nots.

At all levels of this quickly evolving society, however, South Koreans are demanding greater control over their lives through more democratic government at the local level and through a reduction in the central government's powers.

As in the other NICs, South Korea's political dilemma is closely tied to a crucial leadership succession.

The presidency of Chun Doo Hwan is set to end in 1988. Mr. Chun's opponents want the occasion to mark the nation's emergence as a full democracy. To achieve this, reformists are demanding basic constitutional change. A few months ago, they launched a national petition drive to revise the Constitution to allow for direct presidential election. In the Constitution's current form, the president is elected indirectly -- leaving Chun and his Democratic Justice Party (DJP) wide latitude, critics charge, in choosing the nation's next leader. A direct presidential election has not occurred in South Korea since 1971.

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Chun has said that the issue should be deferred until after his successor takes office. He asserts that South Korea needs stability and consensus to bring about a peaceful political transition. His assertion is based on familiar assumptions that political turmoil will upset the country's extraordinary economic gains and that North Korea's hostility gives security a higher priority than political reform.

Few South Koreans question the importance of both security and growth. But in legislative elections last year, the just-formed opposition New Korea Democratic Party won nearly a third of the vote, while the ruling DJP's support declined. DJP officials interpreted this as a signal that long-standing arguments against democratic reform were losing credibility among voters.

Although South Korea has a long tradition of Confucian-style rule, it also has the strongest political opposition among the NICs and the longest tradition of agitation for political reform. Some analysts view this partly as a legacy of the feudal warlords, or yangbans, who continually challenged the monarch's power in Korean history. Factionalism and regional loyalties historically have coexisted with highly centralized administration.

Current opposition leaders such as Kim Dae Jung still depend somewhat on regional loyalties for political support. Mr. Kim's power base, for instance, is in the southwest, near Kwangju. But the country's more recent past also provides a tradition of rebellion that protesting students are committed to upholding. In 1960, for instance, university protests forced the resignation of President Syngman Rhee after a fraudulent election.

Today, South Korea is a nation of cross currents. Although calls for democratic reform are gaining support, it remains unclear whether South Koreans want an opposition government to take power. And although people want change, political observers suggest, they now have a great deal to lose.

``I would rather see a strong authoritarian government than a weak democracy,'' admits one local analyst sympathetic to the nation's reformists. Tomorrow: Public confidence shrinks in Singapore

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