Rep. Stephen Solarz articulately expressed the conventional wisdom of journalists, diplomats and many Korean voters concerning South Korea's presidential election: a divided opposition shot itself in the foot {"South Korea: Misdirected Rage," op-ed, Dec. 27}.

According to Rep. Solarz, the ruling party's Roh Tae Woo won by 2 million votes, a margin "too large to support the contention that the opposition had been robbed" by fraud. Opposition disunity clearly helped Mr. Roh, but Rep. Solarz dismissed the fraud charges too readily.

I participated in a delegation observing the election that witnessed such irregularities as a counterfeit ballot, multiple voting, unauthorized proxy voting and beatings and other harassment of election monitors by uniformed and plainclothes police. We heard many accounts of government vote-buying and the use of supposedly neutral civil servants as campaign workers for Mr. Roh. The nonpartisan National Coalition for Democracy, which fielded 100,000 election monitors around the country, claimed to have documented more than 1,000 cases of fraud.

Rep. Solarz said that the opposition had poll watchers in every voting station who accompanied the ballot boxes to counting centers and guarded against stuffing. However, the NCD reported instances in which police or "thugs" interfered with these monitors. In other precincts, suspicious "power failures" took place, during which fraudulent ballot boxes may have replaced the legitimate ones.

In Rep. Solarz's view, "the regional breakdown of the results is pretty much what one would have expected," with opposition candidate Kim Dae Jung rolling up an "impressive 9-to-1 margin" in his home region of Cholla. Yet Mr. Kim received only 22 percent of the vote in Kyonggi Province near Seoul, where 30 percent of the voters are Cholla natives.

Furthermore, Mr. Roh carried or finished second in every province and provincial-status city. While fraud may or may not have produced this result, it is surprising indeed that in Cholla and Kwangju, where many people hold Mr. Roh responsible for the bloody suppression of a 1980 uprising, he won thousands of votes.

Rep. Solarz ignored the critical issue of the 800,000 absentee ballots. All active-duty military personnel vote by this method, and for "national security" reasons independent observers could not monitor voting at military installations.

A great number of Koreans -- and not just "student radicals" -- consider the election invalid. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that an impartial investigation will ever take place. The election law leaves this up to the courts, which are widely regarded as lacking independence. In a chilling example of how the regime intends to deal with complaints, hundreds of riot police violently forced poll watchers in Seoul to surrender suspected fraudulent ballot boxes and arrested a thousand protesters against fraud.

Ultimately, Rep. Solarz is probably right that advocates of democratization should focus on making sure that Mr. Roh carries out promised reforms. Still, in a country that values legitimacy, Mr. Roh will take office having received but 35.5 percent of the vote in a possibly tainted election. Sadly, it seems that South Korea has not broken its ongoing cycle of repression and uprisings.


Associate Director, Asia Resource Center