When congressional liberals introduced an economic sanctions bill against South Korea, they fired the opening salvo in what will probably be a long-term foreign policy battle with the Reagan administration. Violent demonstrations in South Korea are, in the opinion of congressional staff members and analysts of Korean affairs, the beginning of a cycle of protests and repression that could reach a boiling point in the summer of 1988 when the World Olympics come to Seoul.
This will increase pressure on the administration, which has indicated its desire to proceed with caution in South Korea. For the moment, an economic sanctions bill introduced by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, and Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, and Rep. Philip Foglietta (D) of Pennsylvania, is largely symbolic and has little hope of passing.
But the sanctions send two strong messages.
The first is to the Koreans. It comes at a time when, according to analysts, anti-American feeling is growing rapidly among a population which believes that the United States backs the Chun regime to the hilt.
``Up till now, the US has given the impression that it identifies change with chaos and a repressive status quo with stability,'' says South Korean exile, Shin-Bom Lee, of the International Center for Development Policy in Washington. ``As long as the US does this, the South Korean people will turn their backs on this country.''
The sanctions bill, according to congressional sources, is designed to show South Koreans that important segments of the US Congress and public favor their struggle against the Chun regime.
The sanctions backers believe this to be especially important since they feel that the Chun government will eventually fall and that the US will have to deal with its successors.
According to Senator Harkin, ``As Korean politics become more polarized, as prospects for a peaceful democratization become more remote, the frustrations of the Korean people will fuel anti-Americanism, and our security in the region will suffer as a result.''
The second message is clearly directed at the Reagan administration, which has taken a very cautious approach in dealing with the situation.
Congressional liberals are clearly telling the administration that if it doesn't adopt a stronger position against Chun, they are prepared to turn South Korea into a major foreign policy issue. And it could be an issue which could serve them well in the 1988 election, coming on the heels of the Seoul Olympics.
Senator Kennedy introduced the bill, saying, ``Again and again and again, in South Africa, in Chile, and now in Korea, the Reagan administration has shown its contempt for the struggle for democracy in other lands.
``We have learned to our regret in Congress that quiet diplomacy in this administration means no diplomacy,'' he said.
Congressional and other analysts here see several reasons behind the administration's caution:
The first is US security concerns. This involves a belief that, as the Korean exile put it, a drastic change in Korea could threaten the delicate military balance between North and South Korea. Administration officials have also indicated their fear that too much disruption could lead to a military coup.
Congressional analysts and South Korean activists also point to the possibility that South Korean officials could make embarrassing revelations linking their country to the Iran-contra affair.
For several months, Senate investigators have been looking into allegations that South Korea contributed roughly $10 million to the contras, at US request. These allegations, which come, according to Senate sources, from Americans who were part of the contra supply network, have been strengthened by some of the recent testimony in the joint congressional Iran-contra hearings.
Also potentially embarrassing to the administration are reports from the Korean arms industry which state that it was well known that South Korea was shipping arms to Iran in 1985, if not earlier.
Finally, a series of murky connections have already been touched upon in several book, newspaper, and television reports about alleged links between Korean secret police, the Unification Church, headed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and retired US Army Gen. John Singlaub and his World Anti-Communist League. Some analysts say the links might go further into the contra network than General Singlaub.
The bill itself does not propose stopping all trade with Korea, but rather makes three points:
Voting against all loans for South Korea and all multilateral institutions.
Denying South Korea trade preference under the provisions of general assistance preference, which is usually applied to third-world countries with which the US has a special relation.
Making no further Overseas Private Investment Corporation loans to South Korea guaranteeing US investments there.
Congressional supporters of the bill do not wish to touch the US military relationship with Korea, but wish to use this country's economic leverage, which they point out is strong since Korea exports $13 billion to the US, and only imports $6 billion worth of US goods.