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Seoul's drama

ALTHOUGH Washington is consumed by summit mania, events of extraordinary significance are proceeding elsewhere in the world this week. In South Korea, millions of people are turning out in bitter wintry weather to listen to presidential candidates winding up their campaigns for next week's elections. It has been a rip-roaring contest, with occasional violence, and plenty of charges of manipulation. But by and large South Korea is lurching in the direction of democracy in reasonably good order.

This is good news for the United States, South Korea's closest ally, which for the past year has persistently argued in favor of a move away from military control and toward a pluralistic society.

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The crunch for Washington may come immediately after the election. It will probably have to pronounce on the legitimacy, or otherwise, in American eyes of the winning candidate.

There are three principal contenders, and they are running neck and neck.

The governing party's candidate is Roh Tae Woo, a former Army general. He is beset by rumors of gift-giving, of paying supporters to attend his rallies, and of influencing television coverage of the campaign. None of these charges are particularly novel in Korean politics.

The extent of this activity, if true, does not seem particularly bothering to the Korean-in-the-street. And indeed some journalists say that the governing regime's influence over television, for example, is much reduced compared with previous years.

The two opposition candidates are Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, whose intense personal ambitions have prevented their cutting a deal that would have caused one of them to withdraw. Instead, they are running against each other as well as the ruling regime, and thus have divided what might otherwise have been a united front against the government.

The problem may be that no single candidate will get a clear majority, and that the winner might emerge with less than 40 percent of the vote.

If there were indications that a close outcome came about in the midst of vote-tampering, or misreporting of the final returns, there could be serious disaffection in South Korea. The opposition candidates have made it consistently clear that they distrust the government, and will likely cry ``fraud'' in the event of a ruling-party win, even if there is no evidence of fraud.

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The other danger is that if the government's candidate does not win, some officers in the Army might unleash a military coup.

The United States has made it clear that it would strongly disapprove of such action, but that might not forestall it, particularly if the opposition winner should turn out to be Kim Dae Jung. He is considered by many South Korean military men to be radical, and a danger to national security. The military could more easily live with Kim Young Sam.

There are strong economic and military ties between South Korea and the US, but that does not mean Washington can call the shots in Seoul. Koreans are independent and nationalistic. They have, for example, stoutly resisted any suggestion that there be official American ``monitoring'' of their election, although there will be a variety of Americans on hand in their individual capacities to see how the elections fare.

Washington, however, will be pressed to make a pronouncement on the legitimacy of the election, and that is a responsibility it cannot escape.

Even though Washington is galvanized by the broad drama of the summit, it must continue to heed these other critical foreign policy issues.

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