A news story in The Post last weekend reported that student demonstrators in Kwangju have attacked American officials like me for accepting the results of the presidential election in South Korea. For someone who has been deeply committed to the cause of democracy in the Republic of Korea and who has worked hard to encourage an American policy toward South Korea that puts a greater emphasis on the need for democracy, being denounced by those whose efforts one has tried to support has been a discomforting experience.
The students who were expressing their rage over the results of the election do, indeed, have cause for concern. Virtually everyone agrees that the election saw a certain amount of vote buying, some snatched ballot boxes and an unwholesome degree of voter intimidation.
But the real question is whether these irregularities altered the results of the election. In view of the failure of the opposition to produce convincing evidence that the irregularities were so extensive that the results would have been different in the absence of fraud, it would appear that the election fairly reflected the will of the South Korean people.
In the first place, Roh Tae Woo's victory margin of 2 million votes was simply too large to support the contention that the opposition had been robbed. Second, the electoral procedures that were followed seem to have precluded massive fraud. The opposition had observers at each of the 13,657 polling places. After the polls closed, opposition representatives accompanied the ballots to regional counting centers and supervised their tabulation. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how 2 million illegitimate votes could have been given to Roh, or how 2 million legitimate votes could have been taken away from the two Kims.
Moreover, the regional breakdown of the results is pretty much what one would have expected. In opposition strongholds the opposition did quite well. Kim Dae Jung, for instance, carried his home province of Cholla by an impressive 9-to-1 margin. Similarly, in his political base of Pusan, Kim Young Sam garnered nearly 60 percent of the vote. It seems extremely unlikely that the government would have permitted regional variations of this magnitude had there been systematic fraud.
Opposition critics contend that the media were biased in favor of Roh and that the more favorable coverage he received, particularly on television, was responsible for a disturbing distortion in the results. Perhaps. Yet the fact is that newspaper reporting on the campaign was generally considered to be fair, and each of the candidates was given five separate opportunities to present his uncensored position on television. So while Roh clearly benefited from a progovernment bias in television news reporting of the campaign, the two Kims did have an opportunity to get their views across in both the print and the electronic media. They were also able to address campaign rallies of up to a million people in cities across the country.
Finally, the fact that Roh received well under 50 percent of the votes cast is itself circumstantial evidence of the essential fairness of the election. If the government had manipulated the results, it presumably would have given Roh more than the 36.6 percent of the vote he actually obtained.
This is not to condone those irregularities that did take place. Electoral fraud and voter intimidation are always to be deplored. Yet South Korea does not have a monopoly on political skulduggery. Not many years ago, Cook County, Ill., was renowned for the faithfulness with which its cemeteries supported the machine of Mayor Richard Daley. From time to time electoral chicanery has even taken place in Brooklyn. But unless these abuses alter the final result, their existence does not deprive the electoral process of the legitimacy to which it otherwise would be entitled.
In truth, Roh's election appears to have much more to do with the failure of the opposition to unite than with fraud on the part of the government.
It may well be, as Kim Dae Jung has claimed, that even had the opposition united, the government would not have permitted it to win. But since the government was not put to the test, we will never know, and we can hardly condemn it for actions it did not take.
At a time when many South Koreans appear dissatisfied with the two Kims for their failure to unify the opposition, we should not forget the essential role each has played in moving South Korea toward democracy. Kim Dae Jung in particular has undergone great personal privation, for he has been imprisoned for prolonged periods of time and nearly lost his life on several occasions. Kim Young Sam, although never jailed, also maintained a lonely vigil for democracy during the many years he was in the political wilderness.
Still, the mere fact that the two Kims have called the election "fraudulent" does not by itself prove fraud. Of course, if the opposition comes forward with convincing evidence of cheating on a heretofore unimagined scale, then we would have to reconsider our position. But so far it has failed to do so.
In attacking people like me for accepting the outcome of the election, some members of the South Korean opposition fail to understand that their friends in the United States have always been committed not to the election of one of the two Kims as president, but to the process of democratization itself. For the very same reasons that we supported the cause of democracy in South Korea, we now feel obligated to recognize the results of an election that appears to reflect the will of the people.
As for the future, just as the establishment of democracy in South Korea required a willingness on the part of Roh to accept the opposition's demands for direct elections, the consolidation of democracy now requires that the two Kims reject extra-constitutional efforts to overthrow the government and work for such changes as they deem necessary within the framework of the existing political order. By opting for reconciliation rather than revenge, and by urging restraint rather than rage on their followers, they can make a signal contribution to the creation of a genuinely democratic society.
The transition from authoritarian rule to democracy is seldom a painless process. Nor have the South Korean people completed that journey. One election does not a democracy make. The fate and future of political pluralism in South Korea still hang in the balance. Much depends on how the National Assembly elections in February are conducted and on whether the government permits the establishment of a genuinely independent press and judiciary.
However disappointed they may be with the results of the election, and however unhappy our conclusions about the legitimacy of the electoral process may have made them, the two Kims and their followers should nonetheless know that those of us who care about democracy in South Korea will continue to speak out on behalf of the right of all South Koreans to engage fully and freely in the political process. That is an obligation we owe not only to them but to ourselves as well.
The writer, a Democratic representative from Brooklyn who has worked with opposition leaders in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia for the past seven years, is chairman of the Asian and Pacific affairs subcommittee.