Rowland Evans and Robert Novak say that South Korea will celebrate its first direct presidential election in December -- but not the outcome {op-ed, Nov. 9}. The election will be fair and square without military intervention and vote fraud, the columnists argue, and the government candidate, Roh Tae Woo, may profit from the divided opposition. The fractured opposition, however, will cry foul and reject Roh's victory, thus inviting possible "chaos" and "a hard hand by the military to ensure order."

Evans and Novak judge the fairness of elections solely by vote fraud. But campaign irregularities are equally relevant, if not more, and there is already plentiful evidence of them in South Korea. Recently, for example, "gifts" bearing Roh's name have been handed out to millions of voters. Roh's payola included rice, Ginseng tea, blankets, cigarette lighters, liquor, etc.

In addition, officials are campaigning to double the ruling party's membership, violating the law and principle of bureaucratic neutrality. According to Kim Jong Pil, premier during the Park Chung Hee dictatorship and a presidential contender, media coverage favors Roh and campaign funds have inexplicably dried up. Roh's military allies threatened "something unhappy" against Kim Dae Jung's candidacy, a chilling reminder to the average voter to elect Roh for the sake of stability. Finally, the Chun regime is cracking down on the student movement, although it is working for an orderly "revolution through election." The manipulation of the process is so blatant that even the normally timid Korean press has been expressing concern.

The columnists also fail to note that the military does not have to intervene directly to affect elections. For instance, the military can manipulate votes of 650,000 soldiers as it did in the 1971 election that Kim Dae Jung narrowly "lost."

The tainted campaign process needs immediate rectification. Otherwise, honest voting and ballot-counting may not sufficiently legitimate the election outcome. The "seeds of chaos" are sowed not by the opposition but by Chun and Roh.

Evans and Novak say Roh's problem is that he "has not successfully distanced himself" from unpopular Gen. Chun. As commander of the Military Security Command at the time of the December 1979 coup and the 1980 Kwangju massacre, Roh contributed to these two notorious events as much as Chun. Roh's problem, then, is his inability to distance himself as much from his own record as from Chun.

Will the divided opposition benefit Roh, as the article speculates? The potent regionalism factor makes this highly unlikely. Kim Dae Jung's withdrawal would radicalize students, workers and the people of Cholla, Kim's birthplace. These groups may boycott the election or challenge its legitimacy unless they have a chance to test their preferences in a fair election. Instability, likely if Kim withdraws, will not benefit anyone.

If Kim Young Sam drops out, the southwestern Youngnam region may go heavily to Roh, its native son like Kim. With both Kims in, however, the three leading candidates will start the race almost on even terms, drawing overwhelming support from their respective home bases.

Finally, there is an allegation that, while in exile, Kim Dae Jung argued for the removal of "U.S. troops as a sanction against the military regime." Having personally worked on most of Kim's speeches during his exile, I can testify to the inaccuracy of this allegation. In fact, on Feb. 23, 1973, during his first exile in America, Kim wrote in The New York Times that "American forces are . . . gradually withdrawing from Asia {which} will in time inflict pain on the conscience of the American people." His position has not changed since.

Overall, South Korea's turn to democracy is not as far along as Evans and Novak suggest, nor is the opposition such a stumbling block as they intimate.

Choi Sung-il

The writer is executive director of the Korean Institute for Human Rights.