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A political - as well as economic - miracle for Seoul?

SEVERAL hectic, dangerous months lie ahead in South Korea. Between now and Dec. 20, amendments to democratize the Constitution (which have already been agreed to by party negotiators and the National Assembly) must be popularly ratified; election laws have to be drafted and the machinery created to apply them fairly; and, finally, a presidential campaign and election must be conducted. Assuming all this is managed successfully, the new president will be inaugurated Feb. 25 and assembly elections will occur about the same time. The dimensions of Korea's extraordinary economic performance are readily apparent. A doubling (in real terms) of the republic's gross national product in less than seven years has placed that country in the position of being the world's 18th-largest economy and 12th-largest trading nation. The political changes, now taking place at an even more dizzying pace, could yield equally favorable results.

The latest political drama began in mid-June, when massive demonstrations erupted in dozens of Korean cities after President Chun Doo Hwan's announcement that Roh Tae Woo would be his party's candidate to succeed him. President Chun's designation of former General Roh seemed to crystallize popular concern that more authoritarianism lay ahead. Mr. Chun, himself a former general who came to power via coup d''etat in 1979, appears ready to step down from the presidency peacefully, but many apparently believe that he is determined to ensure Roh's succession. In any case, the demonstrations, led by students and workers but swollen for the first time by sizable numbers in the middle class, underscored the popular demand for greater democracy.

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So confronted, the President did not call out the military to restore order, but he opted, instead, for accommodation. On June 29, Mr. Roh committed the ruling Democratic Justice Party, which he heads, to a startling program of reform. Not only did he agree to a direct rather than indirect presidential election, which had been the central issue between the governing and opposition parties for more than two years, but he also agreed to a free press, release of political prisoners, and other liberalizing measures. The public, the parties, and the pundits were stunned. Demonstrations evaporated overnight, replaced by an acute case of national euphoria.

By August, however, the mood had changed somewhat. Workers began to strike for higher wages, free unions, and better working conditions. In the space of a few weeks, more than 2,000 strikes involving hundreds of thousands of workers erupted, often violently. Again, the government's basic approach was to accommodate, not confront. With government encouragement, all but a few of the strikes have now been settled.

Still, there is continuing concern throughout Korea that, sooner or later, elements on the left, seeking to radicalize politics through violence, will create enough chaos that elements of the right will call for martial law and bring in the military. Fortunately, it seems clear that neither Chun nor Roh, nor those in the Democratic Justice Party who have so far prevailed, want to risk a national uprising, which could follow martial law. Nor, it appears, do Kim Dae Jung or Kim Young Sam, the principal opposition leaders. Neither side wants to see this delicate political transition derailed.

Managing all these changes poses enormous challenges to a people who have never known a functioning democracy. Will the political miracle, which has already begun, continue to unfold? Roh is an impressive person with a taste for moderation and a political flair surprising to many observers. The two Kims, too, are impressive figures, with tested political skills.

Unfortunately, there is little in Korean history to underpin expectations that moderation will continue. Politics there tends to be highly personalized and shallowly based, with parties frequently breaking up and reforming. The Korean national characteristics of strong-mindedness and determination, which have been essential to overcoming national poverty and meeting the perennial danger from North Korea, may yet result in the breakdown of this whole favorable evolution of the last few months. Oddly, the strongest impetus for sensible compromise is probably the national consensus that the 1988 Olympics should come off smoothly. But the jury will be out for at least six months.

Still, this is not the Philippines or Haiti; Korea is a decidedly hopeful case apart. It is also one that Americans need to approach with caution, for anti-Americanism is sufficiently strong in some circles, particularly among students, that even a hint of favoritism or meddling could significantly damage the transition process. In private meetings with groups of American legislators recently, both Kims and Roh observed that congressmen would be welcome individually to observe elections, but that any kind of delegation or group monitoring would create real problems.

If the political ice that is already broken continues to melt and merge into the stream of democratic aspirations that is now surging there, it will be Korea's own hard-won miracle - even though Americans can take great pride in having contributed to that miracle through the economic assistance, political support, and military backing their country has long provided.

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Amos T. Jordan is president and chief executive officer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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