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NATIONS, like their peoples, change. A nation is born, passes through infancy, and, with the confidence of experience, matures into adulthood. Some nations never make the transition from one phase to another. For one reason or another, development stalls.

South Korea is not one of those nations. Rather, it is a picture of breathtaking change.

In the short span of 2 decades, this Asian nation has gone from poverty to budding economic power. In a generation, its people have moved from rice paddies and tile-roofed farmhouses to factories and apartment blocks.

This past year, South Korea has attempted the most dangerous and demanding change of all - becoming a democratic country.

Spurred by the massive protests of students backed by the middle class and poor, Koreans have thrown off most of the restraints of military-dominated rule, which they had lived under for 27 years.

Since last summer's street revolts, the turbulent process of change has only accelerated. Students continue to battle police in the name of redressing the oppression of the past. Workers are flexing newly won rights of unionism by demanding a bigger share of the economic miracle they wrought. Democratic elections have forced South Korea's ruling elite to bow to losing their absolute powers. The economy continues its dazzling growth.

Those who have observed Korea closely during this period have watched a nation struggle with that passage into adulthood. The process of democrati-zation can still be reversed. But there is no question that Korea is a nation coming of age.


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