In the first public comment since last week's military upheaval, South Korea's new martial law command said today that it does not plan to interfere in domestic politics.
The new martial law commander, Gen. Lee Hu Sung, said the military's basic duty is defend the country and asserted that politics is out of its jurisdiction.
"So I'd like to make it clear that the firm principle is that the military will not interfere in politics and that politics should be developed by politicans who have patriotic minds and good intelligence," the general said in a statement issue this morning.
It was the first time that the new generals who came to power after last Wednesday's intra-military coup have spelled out any of their broader intentions. They grabbed control of key military posts after arresting the former martial law commander, Gen. Chung Sung Hwa, for questioning in the assassination of the late president Park Chung Hee. [Military prosecutors today demanded both death sentences for seven of those involved in the assassination including former Korean Central Intelligence Agency chief Kim Jae Kyu and Prk's chief secretary Kim Kae Won, who was present when Park was shot, Reuters News Agency reported.]
The major questions since then have involved how far they intend go in manipulating civilian politics and whether they would insist on slowing down the pace of reforming Park's authoritarian government.
American officials reportedly have pressed the new generals to let democratization continue, calling for non-interference in the movement to amend the constitution, a new election law and broad participation in a new presidential election as soon as possible.
Ambassador William Gleysteen has been carrying that message in meetings with government and military officials. One source said yesterday that there had been verbal assurances that reforms not be impeded.
Gen. Lee's statement, it is believed, was in part the public response to that American pressure. Although issued by him, it is also believed to represent the view of Gen. Chon Doo Hwan, the commander who engineered last Wednesday's seizure and who some observers believe is the most powerful of the insurgents.
But the statement also contained what appeared to be a thinly veiled criticism of American influence and those South Koreans who try to exert that influence here.
It called for correcting a "flunkeyism" that depends on foreign powers. And it deplored persons or organizations that try to increase their influence in South Korea by "selling the national pride." It did not say which persons were guilty of that.
The main problem for the Americans is that they are unsure of the motives and political sentiments of the newcomers who took over the military and put three of their choices in Chol's new Cabinet. Besides those moves, the new group has not indicated how far they intend to move in politics.
"They certainly reacted against the military establishment, but that doesn't mean they will move against the whole fabric of society," the source said.
For the moment, the Americans seem to doubt suggestions that the new generals represent a right-wing insurgency that wants to turn back the clock and retain Park's "yushinc (revitalizing) constitution and the one-man authoriatrian rule that the document institutionalizes.
As evidence, it is pointed out that some members of Choi's new Cabinet are sympathetic to dissident viewpoints, although they hold less powerful positions than the men insisted upon by the generals. Some Park-era hard-liners were removed. And although Choi has said almost nothing since the revolt last Wednesday, his prime minister, Shin Hyon Hwack, has publicly promised that political change will not be held back.
The view that the verdict is not yet in on the newcomers is shared by other foreign observers.
"This is not just a case of hawks against doves," said one Asian diplomat stationed here. He believes that the insurgency was in large part a rebellion of young officers against older ones suspected of corruption and favoritism in promotions. But he also thinks the younger officers share a view that political reform was coming too fast and that they may want to slow it down.
The new generals have explained only that they acted to arrest former martial law commander Chung Sung Hwa on suspicion that he was involved in the plot to assassinate president Park. They say they also want to clean out corruption.
Their spokesman has denied that they harbor a desire to return to the yushin constitution and, in a bow to the Americans, reminded reporters that some of them are "Western-educated."
It is not clear here what kinds of pressure the United States is using to curb suspected plans to disrupt the process of political reform. They are said to be using tough language to explain that efforts to interfere with the constitutional amendment would make future cooperation between the United States and South Korea extremely difficult.
There is apparently no intention of reverting to the now-discarded plan to withdraw American troops from the country. A reliable source said that is out of the question.
There are many shared military programs that the United States could reduce, but so far as can be learned they will not be used in that fashion to exert pressure. Early in October, before Park's assassination, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown emphatically declared here that the American defense role in South Korea would not be used as a weapon in fostering political change. A source said that is still the American position.
To outside observers, the main contest in Seoul now is one of gaining elbow room for acting President Choi to promote the liberalization that he did before the military intervention last week. The question is how far he can go with consitutional reform under pressure from the United States to move a long way and from the military to pull up short.
When the now-deposed Gen. Chung was the martial law commander, Choi moved quickly toward reform and had largely appeased the dissidents and political opposition. That was running against the tide because Chung's political views were extremely conservative. Chung thought student demonstrators "impure" and felt that oposition leader Kim Dae Jung should not be permitted to run for president because of an alleged procommunist past.