WILL THE RECENT miracle in Manila be repeated on the streets of Seoul? Tens of thousands of Koreans have come out for rallies in support of constitutional revision in recent weeks. For now the government is permitting these peaceful demonstrations to go forward, yet it has also issued dire warnings of a crackdown if the rallies degenerate into what the regime elastically defines as disorder. The stage is being set for a showdown between the forces of authoritarianism and the partisans of pluralism.
This Korean exercise in "people power" could end in a new birth of freedom or in a replay of repression. There are some fundamental differences between Philippine and Korean societies. But in both, there has been a broad yearning for a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Moreover, the internal political dynamics of the Philippines and South Korea have significant implications for the security of the United States. In the Philippines, the New People's Army, whose rise was fueled by the corrupt practices and repressive policies of the Marcos regime, threatened continued American access to our military facilities at Clark Field and Subic Bay. Widespread political instability in South Korea, which could easily occur if the government tries to supress the opposition, might lead Kim Il Sung to miscalculate that the moment had come to reunify the peninsula under communist control. With 40,000 American troops stationed in Korea and a mutual defense treaty between Washington and Seoul, the United States would inevitably be involved were another war to break out.
The most effective way for the United States to safeguard its interest in stability in South Korea is the same way it has sought to forestall communism in the Philippines -- by promoting democracy. With 850,000 North Korean troops deployed offensively just north of the demilitarized zone, it would be imprudent for the United States to threaten the withdrawal of our troops or a reduction in military assistance in an effort to induce more rapid progress toward democracy. Such a strategy might well end up doing more to diminish deterrence than to promote pluralism. But the U.S. government should make clear its preference for accelerated progress toward genuine democracy, especially with respect to the elections in 1988 that will pick a successor to President Chun Du Hwan, and work to facilitate a reconciliation of the contending political forces.
There are, to be sure, indisputable differences between South Korea today and the Philippines under Marcos.
Politically, Marcos tried to hold on until the bitter end, while President Chun has repeatedly pledged to step down in early 1988. Economically, the Philippines under Marcos became a basket case, while South Korea is an economic showcase that enjoys rapid growth and a relatively equitable distribution of income. Historically, the Philippines was bequeathed a legacy of democratic values by the United States, while Korea was ruled for centuries by a rigid Confucian imperial state and for decades by Japanese colonialists. Religiously, the Philippine Catholic church accounts for 85 percent of the population, while in Korea, Christians of all sorts are only 20 percent of the population.
Yet there are some striking political similarities as well: South Korea is, and the Philippines was, an authoritarian regime prone to widespread human-rights abuses. There are numerous reports of torture in Korea, just as there were many "salvagings" -- summary executions -- in the Philippines. There were hundreds of political prisoners in the Philippines, just as there are numerous political prisoners in Korea.
In both regimes, the military and security agencies provided the principal bases of governmental support, keeping the ruling elite in power and suppressing the desire of democracy among the people.
Marcos suffered and Chun suffers from a significant absence of legitimacy. Marcos by the end was largely bereft of support. Chun hurt his chances for legitimacy by securing power through a coup and then putting down an uprising with excessive violence.
In both countries, an organized oppostion emerged to mobilize and project a nationwide demand for democracy. The disaffection in South Korea has not yet gone as far as it did in the Philippines. But it has advanced considerably, and many observers believe that the opposition would win a free and fair election -- which may be why the government seems unwilling to permit it.
In addition to these political similarities, the drive for democracy in South Korea is fueled by some of the very social and economic factors that make it different from the Philippines. Precisely because of Korea's economic miracle, there is now a large middle class that wants a share of political power. The Korean population is one of the world's youngest -- 75 percent are under the age of 35 -- and best educated, with a literacy rate of almost 100 percent. As a result, Koreans are less and less willing to tolerate self-appointed rulers.
Although the church is not as important in Korea as in the Philippines, it is still significant: the homilies of Cardinal Stephen Kim, who has been an eloquent spokesman for human rights, serve as a moral barometer for the society as a whole.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that the government and opposition in Korea are on a collision course. The focus of their conflict is how the 1988 presidential elections should be conducted. Their argument is over who, in effect, will pick the successor to President Chun Du Hwan -- the military elite or the people of the country.
The current constitution, on which little debate was allowed at the time of its adoption, mandates indirect elections through an electoral college, presumably to minimize disorder. The democratic opposition, convinced that this is merely a facade to legitimize a candidate who will protect the military's interests and ensure nothing more than Chunism without Chun, has mounted a campaign for direct elections.
This struggle over electoral arrangements is more than a scholastic debate. The very nature of the Korean political system is at stake. If the Korean people are given a genuine chance to pick the next president, the fundamentals of democracy -- freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press -- will probably follow.
What are the interests of the United States in this delicate situation? We have a vital stake in deterring North Korea from attacking the South, and stability in the South is one element of deterrence. Yet stability is more likely to be guaranteed by democracy than by repression, which only increases popular resentment and dissatisfaction.
Not even the Korean opposition is asking the United States to withdraw our troops or cut military aid pending the establishment of democracy. Much as they want democracy, they also want peace. Both opposition leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam recognize that our forces and aid contribute to deterrence.
What we should do is use our influence to make clear where the United States government -- both the executive branch and Congress -- stands on Korea's political evolution. It is not our place to express a preference for direct or indirect elections, much less to favor one candidate over another. What is appropriate is that we state unequivocally our conviction that the Korean election system be designed to ensure that the choice of the next president reflects the wishes of the Korean people.
American interests would best be served, and a political disaster in Korea avoided, by a compromise in which both the government and the opposition give up some of what they seek for the sake of progress and stability. The key is an agreement on an election framework -- direct or indirect -- in which both sides have confidence that the will of the people will be respected, and that whoever wins will respect the personal security of the loser. If that confidence exists, procedural formulas will be relatively easy to devise.
For a compromise to have a chance, the two sides must begin talking to each other at the highest level. Even if a direct dialogue is not initially feasible, there are potential intermediaries, such as the Catholic Church or the U.S. embassy.
Like the Philippines, South Korea is an example of a country where we can more effectively protect our strategic interests by promoting our political values.