Does S. Korea's new ruling council amount to wolf in sheep's clothing?
An emergency council to "coordinate" the work of martial law authorities with the general civilian administration may become the means to legitimize what amounts to a military takeover of South Korea.
The Cabinet reportedly discussed and approved the council May 28. Earlier, Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan, widely regarded as South Korea's de facto ruler, had said that a decision would be reached in "one or two days."
The delay in announcement could mean second thoughts within the military leadership about the unfavorable international impact of such a development, especially in the United States. Washington is reacting negatively to any move toward a military dictatorship.
The emergency council would be headed by President Choi Kyu-ha. It would consist of the prime minister and key members of the Cabinet, from defense and foreign affairs to home affairs and justice.
Also sitting on it would be the chairman and chiefs of staff of the three services (Army, Navy, and Air Force), plus General Chon in his capacity as acting director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). The martial law commander, Gen. Lee Hi Sung, would sit as the Army chief of staff.
The formal justification for the council is that as long as full martial law lasts, there is need to coordinate activities of the martial law authorities with those of the general civilian administration. But many observers regard the prospective council as a kind of junta that would take over supreme decision-making authority from the civilian Cabinet.
In fact, under current martial law, the Cabinet is already inferior to the martial law authorities, who are responsible only to the President. This full clampdown was imposed May 17 following a crescendo of student protests against the partial martial law that had been in effect since President Park's assassination last October. It is reported that at first General Chon and his military colleagues thought of establishing a purely military committee to run the country, headed by the martial law commander (Gen. Lee) and with General Chon as secretary general.
This would recall memories of the military junta established by General Park immediately after the May 16, 1961, coup d'etat that brought him to power. The idea was eventually dropped in favor of the more innocuous- sounding emergency council (fully called the "council for emergency measures to safeguard the state"). It includes civilians as well as military (although several civilian Cabinet ministers are retired generals).
One of its tasks will be to boost the sagging morale of civil servants. General Chon said recently that martial law authorities were planning to send inspectors to each government office "to watch and encourage civil servants."
Whether the prospective council can successfully restore balance in military-civilian relations remains to be seen. Many Koreans fear the idea of the council will solidify the repressive pattern of military rule under martial law.