SOUTH KOREANS are the antithesis of the apocryphal American who, when asked, ``What do you think of the ignorance and apathy of United States voters?,'' said, ``I don't know and I don't care.'' The tumultuous political events of 1987 have renewed the hopes of average South Koreans that they can make democracy in the Republic of Korea viable. They are extraordinarily committed to holding successful elections Dec. 16 to replace President Chun Doo Hwan. There are risks, however, that their enthusiasm will not yield the results many South Koreans expect. Of four candidates, three appear to be ``front-runners.'' That is a problem.
Roh Tae Woo, the ruling Democratic Justice Party's choice to succeed Mr. Chun, is running a credible campaign. He seems to be effectively putting some distance between his relatively benign political persona and Chun's unpopularity. Further, he seems to be capitalizing on his reputation as an experienced insider who has nonetheless backed democratic reforms.
Mr. Roh has undoubtedly been helped by the divisions in the ``liberal'' opposition ranks caused by Kim Dae Jung's secession from the main opposition party (the Reunification Democratic Party), leaving it in the hands of Kim Young Sam. The RDP's Kim is waging a strong campaign, positioning himself as the opposition's moderate alternative to Kim Dae Jung, more acceptable to the conservative South Korean masses. But Kim Dae Jung - and his new Peace and Democracy Party - show no signs of yielding ground.
The fourth Kim, conservative retread Kim Jong Pil, has refurbished the name of late President Park's ruling party for his campaign vehicle - the New Democratic Republican Party. His campaign shows few signs of significant popular support, and his most likely role is that of conservative spoiler.
As sporadic campaign violence and continued protests attest, South Korea's political climate remains volatile. This diverse array of candidates makes matters worse. Under their ill-designed electoral system, South Koreans have reinforced their tendency toward self-destructive factionalism. In part because they expected factional rivalries, a majority vote was not made necessary to win - only a plurality. These arrangements give candidates who do not think they can win a majority nationwide some chance to cobble together a plurality based on strengths in parts of the country. Consequently, there is little chance for one candidate to obtain a clear majority. Most likely the victor will prevail by a plurality of between 30 and 40 percent of the ballots cast.
It is common of US presidents to be elected by a minority of eligible voters but a majority of actual votes cast. This is because many Americans are election-day couch potatoes content to observe passively the political show unfolding around them. Underlying that passivity is a reassuring degree of confidence that the democratic system will work even if many individuals abstain.
There will be few South Korean electoral couch potatoes in the days ahead. While this ardor is a positive display of confidence in democracy's efficacy, South Koreans' hopes may be too high.
Some people in Confucian societies (like Korea) view democracy in an unfavorable light because it stresses individualism at the expense of the group and ensures that many people will lose. They prefer a paternalistic consensus. This criticism is well encapsulated by the notion of ``tyranny of the majority.'' So, even if a majority victory were in the cards for the next South Korean president, he still would face dissatisfaction.
In the expected circumstances, however, South Korea probably will confront ``tyranny of the plurality'' - a weak form of democratic rule. In light of the high electoral turnout expected in South Korea (more than 90 percent), this means that whoever is elected will probably win the support of only about 27 to 36 percent of the eligible voters.
Conversely, the next South Korean president, albeit democratically elected in a reasonably fair election, will have been opposed by some 64 to 73 percent of eligible voters (60 to 70 percent of votes cast). A smaller plurality would make matters worse.
Even if South Koreans had a strong tradition of democracy, such results would be difficult to absorb. Lacking those traditions, it may be particularly difficult to convince the supporters of the losers that democracy is fair and that their next president should be granted real legitimacy. To forestall such a divisive possibility, one must hope that whoever wins can earn a very high plurality - perhaps even a slim majority - while his opponents splinter the remaining votes.
South Korean democracy is about to test the durability of its fledgling pluralism. This is a test it cannot afford to flunk.
Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.