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S. Korea's toughest hurdle

THE Asian Games, now under way in Seoul, come only every four years. For Pacific nations they are more than just a diversion from economic, social, and political concerns. They promote goodwill and unity in a region that has often been marked by bitter rivalries. It is fitting that South Korea be host to this year's contests -- and the coming 1988 Olympic Games. For starters, of course, Seoul expects its own athletes to do very well in the contests going on through Oct. 5. More important, South Korea deserves the recognition it is winning as a regional and global host.

Economically, South Korea has to be reckoned one of the national success stories of recent years. Its booming economy has even aroused concern in Tokyo, across the Sea of Japan.

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But national greatness must be based on more than just industrial statistics -- or point totals in international sports events. In this regard, South Korea remains a troubled society. Its growing, and increasingly educated, middle class rightly wants a lessening of the heavy-handed military leadership imposed by President Chun Doo Hwan. Mr. Chun is a former general who took power in a coup back in 1979, then won a seven-year ``mandate'' in an indirect national election in 1981.

Dissidents and democratic reformers live under constant surveillance. The government drags its feet on needed constitutional reforms. Washington, long a friend, should demonstrate its friendship by continuing to prod Seoul to adopt democratic reforms.

The winds of change are sweeping through Asia faster than elsewhere, as the experience of the Philippines is showing. In South Korea, legitimate demands for greater political freedom and democratic rights cannot be put off. Athletic acclaim is not enough.

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