South Korea's Roh faces key tests to establish his legitimacy. Opponents look for delivery on election promises
South Korea's President-elect, Roh Tae Woo, has won power through democracy. But to many Koreans he still must prove that he is a democrat. The former Army general must overcome deep-rooted suspicions that the ruling elite, particularly the military and police apparatus, will revert to their old authoritarian ways now that the immediate threat of opposition takeover is past.
During the presidential election campaign, South Koreans enjoyed an unprecedented degree of freedom of assembly and speech. ``Can this be maintained?'' asks eminent political scientist Lee Hong Goo. ``People are half-believing, half-doubting. If not, the democratic restructuring will be artificial.''
These doubts reflect the broader challenge Mr. Roh faces to establish the legitimacy of his rule. Though Roh emerged with a solid plurality victory in last week's presidential election, the majority of the electorate voted against him. His three main opponents charge that the ruling party employed unfair and illegitimate means to win.
``The winner has been born,'' the influential leader of the Korean Roman Catholic Church said yesterday. ``The joy of victory has not been shared wholeheartedly here by the people.''
``I have wished to have Christmas be a festival with all people taking part in the new days of democracy through a fair and square election,'' Cardinal Kim Sou Hwan said yesterday, ``but we must criticize ourselves for the wrong idea that we expected the harvest of democracy from one stroke, without the process of cultivation through our own sweat and blood.''
So far, Roh has shown sensitivity to those concerns. ``I am aware that a significant portion of the vote went to the opposition,'' he said the day after the election. ``I am willing to reflect those opinions ... into policies I am going to make and and implement in my administration.''
While opposition leaders Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung continue to deny the validity of the election, members of their own parties are saying it is time to move on. ``Everything is over now,'' said Chung Jey Moon, a Kim Young Sam supporter and a member of the National Assembly. ``We should give some time to Mr. Roh ... [he] must find a way to calm down student demonstrations and keep [his] promises... .''
Among the promises of democratic reforms Roh made during the campaign, Korean analysts say, there are four which will be key tests for his administration:
Elections for South Korea's legislature, the National Assembly, which could take place as early as mid-February;
The inclusion of non-ruling-party opinions in the new cabinet;
Limitations on the domestic role of intelligence agencies;
Investigation of past abuses, including the 1980 Kwangju massacre, and corruption under outgoing President Chun Doo Hwan.
Roh does not actually take office until Feb. 25, but he will have to deal with problems surrounding the National Assembly vote before then. The ruling and opposition parties disagree on the timing of the vote, with the former seeking a ballot in February. The two sides also disagree on proposed revisions for the system of apportioning assembly seats for voting districts.
The opposition may refuse to talk on these issues, on the grounds it would legitimize what they say was a fraudulent election. Roh's party may be tempted to push the changes through unilaterally. ``Since Roh Tae Woo promised to build consensus politics,'' Professor Lee points out, ``that may look bad.''
The willingness of the new administration to tolerate dissent is a sensitive subject. South Koreans have long lived in fear of the ubiquitous presence of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Roh, in a proposal for ``democratic reconciliation'' delivered last week, said the intelligence agencies would only be concerned with external threats.
During the election, campaign rallies were unimpeded. ``At the same time,'' a Korean analyst noted, ``the dissident movement has been ruthlessly smashed.'' Demonstrations called by the National Coalition for Democracy, an alliance of church, human rights, and other antigovernment activists, have been blocked and members arrested.
Roh, says legislator Chung, ``must allow new voices in society, even if they are closer to the left.''
Chung believes that there are reasons to hope that Roh will be more democratic in his approach than autocratic President Chun. ``Roh Tae Woo got a lesson in the last one month: how difficult it is to be elected. He knows [the] people's power. President Chun never experienced [that].''
Still, as Cardinal Kim so poignantly put it, ``The night is still long, and the dawn of a festive morning seems to be far away.''