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Dictator allies embarrass US. Washington's dilemma: how to foster freedom without losing friends

Political violence on opposite sides of the globe is posing an acute dilemma for US policymakers. It is: How does the United States prod authoritarian regimes toward more-democratic rule without jeopardizing important American interests?

In the wake of two weeks of antigovernment protest in South Korea and Panama, diplomatic observers say the US is still groping for the right formula to guide political change in the developing world.

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The two countries are strikingly similar to each other - and to the Philippines, where the United States last year helped smooth the transition from Ferdinand Marcos to President Corazon Aquino.

Both South Korea and Panama are staunch allies of the US.

Both countries are strategically important to the US. Korea is key to the defense of Japan, Panama to the defense of the Panama Canal.

Both countries have military significance for the US. There are 40,000 US troops along South Korea's border with North Korea, and Panama is home base to the 10,000-man US Southern Command.

In both countries, military-backed rulers with close ties to the US are struggling with the problem of political legitimacy. And in both countries, ongoing student-led protests have gradually broadened to embrace middle-class support, including business and civic groups and the Roman Catholic Church.

US officials are concerned that in both countries the absence of clear governmental legitimacy, combined with repressive measures by the incumbent leaders to retain political power, could lead to the radicalization of the political opposition that might put US interests at risk. While parallels with the twin 1979 revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua are premature, the specter of radical revolutions leading to anti-American regimes is never far from the minds of US policymakers.

Thus, while a political crisis does not appear imminent either in Korea or Panama, US policymakers must weigh their options against the background of ticking political clocks.

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In South Korea, riot police have been battling students in the worst antigovernment protests in several years. The protests, which have catalyzed thousands of middle-class office workers, were triggered when President Chun Doo Hwan suspended debate on constitutional reforms and named a close ally, Roh Tae Woo, to succeed him when President Chun's term expires next February.

Analysts say the protests have not substantially broadened the antigovernment coalition in Korea, which already includes students, labor, farmers, small-business men, and sizable elements in the Buddhist and Catholic churches. What the protests have demonstrated is that many moderate and middle-class Koreans, long reluctant to take to the streets, have adopted the confrontational tactics of the student radicals who have waged intermittent street war against a succession of Korean regimes for the past 25 years.

Through diplomatic channels, the US has urged Mr. Chun to use restraint in dealing with the civil unrest. But despite a forceful warning to Chun last February, issued in a speech by Assistant Secretary of State Gaston Sigur, to start ``permanently civilianizing'' South Korean politics, the US has so far been reluctant to press Chun too hard on the issue of democratic reforms.

State Department sources say their main concern is that overt moves by the US could embolden the opposition, leading to more violence and a military crackdown rather than to democratic reforms.

US officials say that, despite the presence of US troops in South Korea, Washington has little actual leverage to force Chun to make the reforms needed to defuse the tense political situation in South Korea.

``Every South Korean government needs to demonstrate the need to get along with the United States,'' says one knowledgeable administration official. ``But I don't think the potential influence implicit in that statement is easy to convert into real effect. ... I think the options available to us are very limited.''

US officials have thus adopted a nonintrusive approach to the current unrest, though they insist that US statements have left no doubt where the US stands on the need for democratic reforms.

This approach has been questioned by some private analysts who stress that if dangers are posed by pressing Chun too hard, even greater dangers could result if the US does not press Chun hard enough.

Proponents of this approach fault the administration for not intervening to prevent Chun from breaking off talks with the opposition in April. More direct US pressure will strengthen the position of moderates within the business community and the military, administration critics say. Alternatively, a hands-off approach by the US could strengthen the position of more radical elements within the opposition.

Critics of US policy say they agree with the administration that, ultimately, South Korea's future is not for the US to decide. But they contend that, by leaning harder on Chun, the US can help dispel the widespread impression that his regime is propped up by Washington.

Recalling the US ambassador for consultations or sending a special emissary to Chun would underscore US concern over Chun's recent actions, critics say.

Many critics eschew extreme sanctions such as cutting off trade with South Korea.

``We should not use the kind of leverage that would penalize the masses of people we're trying to help. Our objective is to make sure we are not blamed for the continuation of military rule,'' says Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Legislation was introduced in the House and Senate yesterday that would deny duty-free treatment to Korean goods and withhold US support for international loans to South Korea pending labor and human rights reforms by the Chun government.

In Panama, where dramatic charges of official corruption have also triggered protests, the dilemma for the US is much the same as in South Korea.

Despite growing US concern over alleged misdeeds by Panama's political leader, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, including election fraud and complicity in the 1981 death of former Army chief Omar Torrijos, US officials have been reluctant to take overt steps to undercut General Noriega.

Many Panamanians applauded when the US ambassador to Panama, Arthur Davis, paid calls last week on several opposition leaders, including Ricardo Arias Calder'on, the leader of Panama's Christian Democrats.

State Department officials insist the visit to Mr. Calder'on, which led to the removal of troops that held him under house arrest, was not designed to send a political signal to Noriega. But Panamanian opposition leaders say the US action conveyed just the right message, whether intended or not.

``The US needs to come out with a clear statement that the best thing for Panama is legitimate democracy and that Noriega's regime is not legitimate democracy,'' says Roberto Eisenmann, exiled editor of the Panamanian daily La Prensa, which was shut down last week by the government. ``That would enthuse those who are risking their lives every day'' by opposing the regime.

``We probably have one more shot at an unarmed, nonviolent crisis,'' says Mr. Eisenmann, who now lives in Miami. ``If after that people are still frustrated, the extremists and not the moderates will take control. The longer the US stays on the wrong side, the more difficult it will be for the US when things change.''

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