South Korean President Roh Tae Woo returned from an overseas tour on Monday to face his greatest political challenge since taking office early this year. Pressure is mounting from all quarters for President Roh to take action against his predecessor and friend, Chun Doo Hwan. The former Army general is widely accused of massive corruption and abuse of power during his eight-year rule.
``There is a very tense situation here,'' commented opposition Assemblyman Chung Jey Moon from Seoul. ``There are a lot of people demanding [Chun] should be put on trial ... We are waiting for President Roh's action.''
The opposition-controlled National Assembly is now conducting explosive hearings into the wrongdoings of the Chun era. The nation was captivated last week by live telecasts of the sessions, featuring heated exchanges between legislators and former Chun officials. On the streets, students and dissidents are holding almost daily demonstrations demanding that Mr. Chun and his wife, Lee Soon Ja, be brought to justice.
Over this past weekend, several relatives of the ex-president were arrested on a variety of corruption charges. Chun's older brother, Chun Ki Hwan, was charged with embezzlement. (A younger brother is already serving a seven-year term for the same crime). Chun's cousin and his wife's brother were also charged by prosecutors in separate cases of influence-peddling.
The arrests, observers in Seoul say, are not likely to dampen the controversy. If anything, a Western diplomat says, ``they put more pressure on Chun.''
The ruling Democratic Justice Party has been supporting a formula for resolving the crisis that calls for Chun to publicly apologize for his wrongdoings, to return his illegally accumulated wealth, and to retire to the countryside. The three major opposition parties have, until now, supported that solution.
Chun has so far resisted pressure to take this course. The former ruler insists he will make no statement until he meets with Mr. Roh, a tactic some feel is aimed at putting pressure on his former ally to find a less onerous solution.
The President told reporters at the airport that he did not favor a solution that included putting Chun and his wife on trial. But time may be running out for the apology plan. ``The amount of humiliation [Chun] has to go through to solve everything is getting higher each day,'' the diplomat said.
There is increasing sentiment in favor of Chun facing legal charges. The key factor behind the change, observers agree, has been the impact of the televised hearings, which some have compared to the Watergate hearings in the United States. ``People underestimated the power of television,'' the diplomat said. ``Everybody's watching it and got an opinion on it.'' The telecasts have been watched by the vast majority of viewers, getting higher ratings than the Olympics.
Close aides to Chun were called to testify in sessions that lasted from morning until after midnight. These first days focused on a foundation critics say was created as a power base for Chun after leaving office. Testimony has revealed that business leaders and others were forced to give $85 million in donations, including for the foundation complex which features lavish quarters for Chun.
The aides, particularly former presidential security chief Chang Se Dong, angered legislators and viewers with their staunch refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing. ``Mr. Chun and his group really made us mad,'' said Assemblyman Chung, who represents the Reunfication Democratic Party. ``They don't seem sorry about what they've done.''
Opposition circles say they are feeling the heat of public opinion. ``Over 90 percent of the people watched,'' Chung said. ``They have their own judgment now - that is to punish Mr. Chun.''
The largest opposition group, headed by Kim Dae Jung, has taken the public stance that they do not seek revenge against Chun. A party leader says they still hold to this view ``but our party is under heavy pressure from dissident groups for being too mild.'' Mr. Kim issued a statement Monday calling for a full investigation of the charges against Chun.
Privately, many opposition strategists urge caution, fearing a reaction from right-wing, military circles to any effort to put Chun in jail.
All of this places Roh in a very uncomfortable and politically dangerous position. Many observers believe Chun is threatening to remind the Korean populace of the intimate association of Roh with his regime in a bid to gain a less onerous solution. Roh was a military-academy classmate of Chun, a close collaborator in their 1980 takeover of power, a senior official in his government, and Chun's handpicked successor.
``He won't have much time before he says something about the Chun case,'' asserted National Assemblyman Cho Se Hyong, who represents Kim Dae Jung's party. ``Chun is threatening he would talk about everything - that `everything' might mean his relationship with Roh.''
The timetable is partly determined by hearings which begin this week on the Kwangju incident of 1980, when Army troops killed at least 200 people while suppressing a revolt against military rule. The special investigatory committee on Kwangju has called Chun to testify. Chun refused, but the committee can now formally summon him and if he refuses that as well, can request his prosecution.