Korea: Asia's Next Revolution

Discipline and Democracy Clash in the South

By John Burgess
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 17, 1986

First in a series of three articles

SEOUL -- At 9:30 on a humid night in July, sirens wailed and within minutes, this city of 10 million inhabitants seemed to vanish.

In houses and apartments, people scurried to switch off lights and draw curtains across windows. Cars and crowded buses pulled over and cut their headlights. Layer by layer, Seoul began to disappear. Soon the blackness was complete, the silhouettes of high-rise buildings the only hint of what is now the world's fourth-largest city.

Searchlights scanned the sky. To no one's surprise, they found no bombers from communist North Korea. This was a drill, an annual gauge of readiness for war, one of the routines of life in this highly disciplined society. Twenty minutes later, Seoul quickly reappeared as people flipped light switches on cue from radio and television.

President Chun Doo Hwan observed the spectacle that night from the 60th floor of Seoul's tallest office tower. In a way, it was a study in how the former Army general has tried to run South Korea -- everyone pulling together, working toward some great national goal, asking few questions, obeying orders.

South Korea's 40 million people maintain near total unity against the north, which they fought in the 1950-53 Korean War. But increasingly, western diplomats and many Korean analysts say, they are questioning why this threat should mean they must live permanently under an authoritarian, military-installed government like Chun's.

Feelings are rife today that some fundamental change -- no one can say what -- is at hand for the government. A clock is ticking toward a deadline, 1988, the year the critical eyes of the world will be on the country as it hosts the summer Olympics, which begin in September.

This spring, people thronged the streets of eight major cities to protest Chun's six-year-old rule. Christian leaders began speaking with new boldness, and radical students stepped up their battles with police. Spirits were buoyed by the overthrow of former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos in February.

For the present, government and opposition have a truce while they try to negotiate an amended constitution. "If they fail," said Park Chang Hee, a political science professor at Seoul's Dankook University, "we can expect major disturbances. The government might have to impose emergency measures."

In theory, the United States is a neutral bystander. But events unfolding here are crucial to U.S. security interests, starting with the 40,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea who would be drawn instantly into any war that erupts. Politically, the United States is courted, and resented, by government and opposition alike. Both sides see the stamp of approval of the country's great military patron as one of several attributes necessary to exercise stable political power.

This series will examine the paradoxical, intensely hostile societies of North and South Korea and how each is applying radically different means to cope with tremendous pressures for change in the 1980s.

The south is racing into 20th century industrial affluence through capitalism, while its political system remains mired in old patterns of military authoritarianism. The opposition and the government are battling over selection of a successor for Chun, who has promised to step down in 1988.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 1986 The Washington Post Company