A quiz: Who is the author of the "Democracy in South Korea Act of 1987"? Is it Roh Tae Woo, chairman of the ruling party in Korea, who dramatically acceded to virtually all popular demands for democracy? Is it South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, who backed up Roh and has committed his government to a democratic transition? No, the "Democracy in South Korea Act" is the work of four U.S. senators (Kennedy, Kerry, Harkin and Mikulski) who on June 18, in the midst of the South Korean riots, introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to bring the blessings of democracy to South Korea by means of a range of American economic sanctions.

The legislation was stillborn. It was never passed, and by the time it would have gone into effect, the dictatorship had already pledged to dismantle itself. But the bill remains: a curiosity, a historical artifact of Democratic liberalism c. 1987. And for future legislative archaeologists it illustrates perfectly three of its most enduring characteristics.

First, a touching and grandiose belief -- consider only the name, the "Democracy in South Korea Act" -- in the power of the United States to redeem the politics of benighted lands by means of well-intentioned resolutions of the U.S. Congress. Second, an unerring resort to a single instrument -- economic sanctions -- as the solution to foreign policy conundrums. And third, a very mean-edged partisan style. When Sen. Kennedy introduced his bill, he denounced the administration's "disgraceful abdication of responsibility" in Korea. "The Reagan administration," said Kennedy, "has shown its contempt for the struggle for democracy in other lands. We have learned to our regret in Congress that quiet diplomacy in this administration means no diplomacy." Within 12 days Kennedy had to eat his words. Quiet diplomacy, no diplomacy, had now turned into "effective diplomacy," which, Kennedy was forced to concede on June 30, had helped bring about the near miraculous outcome in Korea.

But Kennedy's complaints were ill-tempered 12 days earlier, even before events refuted him. "The secretary of state," Kennedy had charged, "instead of forthrightly calling for steps toward democracy, urges restraint and tilts toward the regime." Wrong on all counts. George Shultz did call for steps toward democracy. He did not tilt toward the regime. And calling for restraint while riots are taking place in 12 cities is hardly an offense.

Moreover, Shultz had called for steps toward democracy long before the student riots provided a backdrop for grandstanding. The call was delivered in a speech given on Feb. 6 by Gaston Sigur, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. It called for Koreans to begin "permanently 'civilianizing' their politics," i.e., for an end to military rule. It urged a transition to "a more open and legitimate political system." And it asserted that this could only "emerge from compromise and consensus among the major political players, not from violence, abuse of physical force, or obstinate confrontation."

The contempt-for-democracy charge is a particularly bum rap because, whatever its other errors (now being broadcast live on national television), Reagan foreign policy under Shultz has taken the notion of democratization very seriously. Perhaps more than anyone since Woodrow Wilson attempted a parchment version of the idea, Shultz has attempted to make the promotion of democracy central to American policy in what is now called the Third World.

The policy is twofold. The Reagan Doctrine pledges American help to those trying to overthrow communist dictatorships. What has been called the corollary to the Reagan Doctrine pledges American help to those trying to democratize noncommunist, often pro-American dictatorships.

The latter is not a theoretical exercise. In the past 18 months the United States has had to move decisively in Haiti, the Philippines, and Korea. It is now challenged again in Panama, where the administration finds itself arrayed against the current dictator. For its efforts, the administration has earned a stoning of the U.S. Embassy in Panama City and an ostentatious te~te-a`-te~te between Panama's dictator Noriega and his Nicaraguan counterpart, Daniel Ortega. They jointly denounced American interference in the internal affairs of Central American countries.

Interfering in others' internal affairs to promote democracy is not an easy sell domestically either. On the one hand, some conservatives argue that a zeal for democracy can only destabilize friendly countries. The answer is simple: you do not blindly threaten or weaken regimes where there exists no democratic alternative. What the United States can do, and has done with fair success in three countries, is to act decisively in favor of democratic forces in a crisis, when the situation is fluid, the political system is malleable and forceful diplomacy can be effective.

On the other hand, liberals like Kennedy complain when the U.S. government does not resort reflexively, at the drop of a riot baton, to punitive measures, invariably economic and often designed for their costlessness (to Americans). Indeed, the "Democracy in South Korea Act" had the not accidental virtue of imposing barriers to Korean exports, something home-town protectionists could be counted on to appreciate.

Nonetheless, even carping Kennedys perform a service. They allow a Sigur to go to Korea and say to the generals that if they do not do something to accommodate him, they may soon have to face the loony left in Congress. My colleague Morton Kondracke calls this playing the "bogeyman" role. Bogeymen make for a fine political opposition: irresponsible, scary and thus useful. Turn government over to them, however, and you have a nightmare.