The diplomatic truce that last week ended open quarreling between the United States and South Korea is shaky, but holding. A kind of calm has settled after 10 stormy, rumor-riden weeks during which an angry South Korean government denied everything, virtually accused the United States of kidnapping an intelligence operative, and unofficially warned of possible anti-American riots in Seoul.
Although the alleged involvement of President Park Chung Hee in the Washington influence-buying scandal and related problems are unresolved, diplomats of both nations are insisting that the basic relationship is solid, friendly and unchanged.
Expert observers believe the two governments acted to contain a crisis that endangered economic, military and political ties.
"Everything was being poisoned," said a diplomat from another country." They have probably reached the bottom now, although there are a hell of a lot of problems ahead."
The refusal of South Korean officials and the U.S. embassy to go beyond their formal statments makes it difficult to tell how much damage was due. Nevertheless, there is skepticism, suspicion and anxiety here about the reliability of the United States as an ally, and Koreans in all walks of life wonder how the scandal will affect U.S. public and congressional support for the Seoul government.
"It's relly dangerous for our country," a leading lawyer commented. It equates being pro-South Korea with bribery."
One of the most respected Christian dissidents here said, "The loss of credibility among our allies is more serious damage than anything North Korea or the other Communist countries have done to U.S."
The scandal has already affected South Korea's internal politics by offering opposition forces an issue they find both morally troubling and capabel of exploitation. The result for the Park government may be a challenge on the human rights issue early in the Carter administration. A church leader confirmed that dissidents will make an issue of the government's behavior in allegedly "buying" congressinal support with millions of dollars in cash and gifts.
Leaflets attacking the scandal appeared on campuses last semester and sparked a demonstration by several hundred Seoul National University students, the first in many months. At a secret coffee house meeting today, antigovernment students from the university predicted that 1977 "will be a noisy year."
The allegations against the South Korean government, first reported in October, struck heavily at the prestige of the nation and its authoritarian ruler, Park. To the Seoul government, the accusations came as a sudden, and unexpected blow from a trusted mentor and ally. The Koreans believed the leakage of damaging material to the American press was officially inspired.
They thought it was a conspiracy because they have a basic misunderstanding about Western democracy," explained a neutral diplomat. "Their government is al powerful, able to intervene and control all sectors of society including the press."
Some officials, according to two reliable sources, even feared that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was engineering a plot to remove Park from office. This theory gathered steam when the CIA'S former Seoul station chief Donald Gregg was reported to have critized the Park government as repressive and inherently unstable in an address to Asian studies students at the University of Texas.
The plot suspicion did not last long. According to one of the sources, it was dispelled by the U.S. side. An embassy spokesman commented, "The question did not arise."
From the outset, the Seoul government's response to the allegations has been vehement denial of any official connection with Korean businessman Tongsun Park and a fierce counterattack on the American press for suggesting otherwise in detailed reports of the U.S. investigation.
Foreign correspondents here were warned that if the revelations continued, anti-American demonstrators might stone the U.S. embassy. Such demonstrations could only occur with official assents.
The hard-nosed Korean position - portraving their country as the aggrieved party - continued with two strongly worded statements in early Decembr. They demanded the release of defecting diplomat Kim Sang Keun and a public denial of reports that U.S. intelligence agencies eaves-dropped on conversations in the presidential Blue House.
Reliable sources say the Koreans were concerned that the investigation disclosures might acquire the momentum of Watergate. Behind the public denials the government made conciliatory gestures. The director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Shin Jik Soo and the third-ranking oficial, Lee Sang Ho were fired.Other agents reportedly were recalled from the United States. Retreating from the ultimatums tersey dismissed as "not helpful" by the State Department, the Koreans turned to diplomatic negotiations in confidential meetings with U.S. Ambassador Richard Sneider.
For two months the closely controlled Korean press was prohibited from reporting the scandal. News broadcasts on the scandal from Japan, America and North Korea fueled a flood of rumors dangerous to the government.One, widely spread story without any known foundation had former KCIA chief Shin atempting to defect to the United States.
The major concern of informed Koreans has been the impact on the important U.S. relations.
"The most important factor for our national security is the trust of the United States," said a dissident leader. "Park has destroyed that trust."
American official have repeatedly stated that the underlying relationship, based on mutual interests is sound.
As estrangement between the two countries continued, there was serious speculation in Seoul on the likelihood of a coup against Park. His power base lies with conservative a dsecurity conscious army generals and a continuing deterioration in relatins could prompt them to remove him, it was argued by wishful critics. Army colonels are known to have sought out uncensored copies of American news magazines, but there has been no hint of unrest within the army.