To the surprise of many people of different persuasions, the fragile beginnings of democratic rule in South Korea seem to have survived the uprising in the military that took place 10 days ago.
The instinctive reaction to the upheaval on Dec. 12 had been to expect a kind of counterreformation that would insist on retaining the authoritarian system left by the late president Park Chung Hee.
So far it has not happened. The signs are that political reform will continue and that the new generals now holding power do not intend to meddle.
In the rough timetable spelled out yesterday by President Choi Kyu Hah, a constitutional revision will be ready for referendum within one year and the new presidential election is to be held as soon as possible. It is a slower and less explicit timetable than opposition party leaders had wanted but reliable sources say that reflects Choi's innate caution, not military pressure.
American officials appear to concur. They are understood to have received assurances that the military will not interfere and that Choi charted his own course on constitutional change. But they are also said to regard the situation within the military as unstable and to feel that all bets are off if there is a new conflict among generals.
One test is found in Seoul's censored press, which cannot print even the names of the generals who directed the revolt. There are daily stories on the views of political parties. Statements extolling constitutional reform receive prominent play and editorials are published that describe a strong public commitment to democratic politics.
Military censors determine what goes in and what stays out of the press and, although the guidelines change almost daily, stories involving constitutional revision are relatively unrestricted.
But as the example of the press suggests, whatever is done here is done at the sufferance of the military, which could change its mind overnight. It did not interfere with the latest release of political prisoners.But President Choi did not even mention the possibility of lifting martial law -- a significant omission, many feel. As long as martial law continues, the new generals can define what is permissible dissent and throw almost anyone in jail for almost any reason.
The new military leaders, headed by Maj. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, quickly achieved their major goal by installing supporters in most of the important military positions. They put their imprint on Choi's new Cabinet by obtaining at least two and maybe three seats.
But what they want in a broader political sense is still vague. They have said they will stay out of politics but at the same time have shown a deep interest in it by calling for a broad clensing of corruption from both public affairs and private business.
Their effect in that area is immediately apparent from a spate of Choi administration announcements that promise investigations and punishment for government officials who have made money by misusing power.
Sources said the government, under military pressure, has compiled a list of alleged offenders who will shortly be dismissed and tried in civilian courts.
A similar list is said to have been compiled of prominent business leaders who either have profited by actions of close friends in government or have amassed fortunes at the expense of the general public. One source in the business community said there is widespread fear of a purge of corporate leaders, including some of the founders and chief executives of South Korea's largest business conglomerates.
A politician familiar with the generals' thinking predicted that they will demand that some top business leaders be forced to retire and surrender part of their fortunes to charity or to public-interest foundations.
A hint of such a purification campaign came in the statement from Gen. Lee Hui Sung, the new martial-law commander, calling for the uprooting of public and private corruption.
In some quarters, the demand for a cleanup was viewed as a political manifesto designed to attract public support for the military uprising, which seems to be widely unpopular among private citizens.
The purge "has something in it for everybody," according to a government official, who cited a rising anger against companies that pay low wages and make big profits while inflation soars.
For such reasons, he said, the generals' manifesto could tap a deep well of public support and make it appear the uprising has a popular base and is not merely a quarrel among military chiefs.
"But if the business community is disrupted," he added, "it will just mean more economic problems and greater unemployment."