In South Korea change comes full circle
In South Korea, the names have changed, but the game is largely the same. That, agrees Koh Jung Hoon, chairman of the Korea Democratic Socialist Party, is a fairly accurate way of comparing the current South Korean government led by Gen. Chun Doo Hwan with the government of assassinated President Park Chung Hee.
A strong military-dominated government which places limits on political freedoms may be an inevitable Korean form of government today, Mr. Koh concedes somewhat sadly.
The political leader, who visited the United States recently, is a softspoken but articulate man. He seems to have traded the rhetoric of optimistic idealism for a slice of what is politically possible.
Today he is a "figurehead" of sorts -- "living proof" that the government of Chun Doo Hwan can tolerate some degree of opposition.
For Mr. Koh is a Democratic Socialist elected to South Korea's elected National Assembly. As a believer in democracy and an anticommunist advocate of social reforms, he has been an opposition leader for more than 40 years. He was imprisoned for political activities by the Japanese, by the Russians, and by the 1950s' South Korean government of President Sygman Rhee.
It was until after the October 1979 assassination of President Park that Mr. Koh had his political rights restored. Under the new Constitution promulgated by Chun Doo Hwan in October 1980, Mr. Koh was able to run successfully for election.
So how was it possible that a socialist like Mr. Koh could end up in office, while other opposition leaders not known as socialist (such as Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam) were in jail?
"I know they are using me," Mr. Koh says. He concedes that the Chun government needs him to undermine accusations that it is autocratic.
"But I can use them, too," he adds, ex plaining that he hopes to exert pressure for labor and other reforms.
Indeed, the wheel seems to have come full circle since the assassination of President Park.
For after President Park's 1961 military coup, limited activities of opposition parties, including a socialist one, were also allowed, including election of opposition leaders to the country's parliament.
But, despite the democratic facade, President Park's military backing, the power of the secret police, and restrictions on political organization produced what, at most, could be called "democracy -- Korean style."
President Park's main rival for power, Kim Dae Jung, ended up in jail.
The President used the resulting stability to centralize and direct the modernization of south Korean industry and agriculture -- and transform a small backward country into a major Asian economic power.
After the assassination of President Park, General Chun seized power with his own military coup in December 1979.
Today a socialist party is still represented in the National Assembly, but it is a different one than that tolerated by President Park.
Today there is still an "acceptable" major opposition party represented in the National Assembly, but it is a different on than that of the Park era.
Today, as under President Park, South Korea's student opposition is once again cowed by tight surveillance, tough antidemonstration tactics, and the threat of arrest.
Under President Chun there are charges from human rights groups that from 320 to 500 political prisoners are being held. This is not much different than in the last days of the Park era.
A changed constitution and election rules, plus arrest of the Park-era opposition leader Kim Young Sam and many other dissidents, has produced a political system remarkably similar to President Park's. Only the "players" are different. And, as in the days of President Park, major opposition leader Kim Dae Jung remains in jail.
But Mr. Koh quickly points out that this does not mean that nothing has changed. The Chun government, he says, is moving to put more emphasis on social welfare measures -- even if this means some reduction of the high economic growth rate achieved by the Park government.
Among the changes, either contemplated or carried out, are increased investment in schools, increased teachers' salaries, stepped-up old age pensions , and more emphasis on facilities for mothers, such as maternity wards and day-care centers.
This is all to the good, Mr. Koh suggests, even if it is partly politically motivated to win popularity for the government and help the people "let off steam."
At present, says Mr. Koh, opposition politicians can criticize government policies and even government officials. But criticizing top leaders is off limits.
"We can give talks and distribute leaflets, but we cannot call strikes or organize a political march," says mr. Koh.
The chun government has retained the experienced technocrats mobilized by President Park to modernize the South Korean economy, notes Mr. Koh. He says it is still premature to evaluate the Chun economic performance -- and notes that any government makes mistakes in its first few years.
The new government, he adds, is showing more flexibility in dealing with "nonaligned" countries and seems more flexible about improving relations with China and the Soviet Union. It is also more independent and assertive in dealings with Japan aimed at getting more economic aid.
Many of the military officers rising in the Chun government have studied abroad, often earning PhD's in countries like the US, he observes. That, he says, could make for a more flexible, open-minded government in the future.