South Korean's most influential general stepped into the public spotlight today and said the country is not ready for the lifting of martial law.
Lt. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, holding his first news conference since he gained military power last December, said he hoped martial law would be lifted "as soon as possible" but mentioned no time limit.
He said he does not have authority to abolish martial law, which was imposed six months ago, but asserted that it should not be lifted until "proper conditions and environments" are created.
The general also used his public debut in an effort to dispel widespread speculation that he will wield his new powers as civilian security chief to block the country's movement toward political liberalization.
Chun described as groundless the reports that his recent appointment as acting director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency will mean a delay in "political development," a reference to the writing of a new constitution and holding of a presidential election.
Chun, a 49-year-old former paratrooper who heads the military security command, is the leader of a group of younger generals who seized military power in a coup Dec. 12, and who have remained a strong but shadowy force ever since.
Many regard him as a potential successor to president Park Chung Hee, whose assassination in October was followed by martial law and a civilian administration of uncertain power.
That speculation was heightened on April 14 when Chun was appointed acting director of the once-powerful KCIA, the organization that carried on massive surveillance of civilians during Park's rule. It has been largely moribund and leaderless since its former director, Kim Jae Kyu, was arrested, tried, and convicted of killing the president.
With his twin civilian and military security roles, Chun holds formidable power, although he and the other new generals have left the day-to-day running of the government to an interim administration of civilians.
Until today, Chun had not made any public appearances and his contacts with the nonmilitary world had been limited to private meetings with businessmen and publishers and a single Cabinet meeting.
His appearance before local reporters seemed primarily designed to dispel speculation that he seeks civilian power and hopes to block or delay indefinitely the drafting of a constitution and elections. He denounced both suppositions as groundless.
His statement that he cannot lift martial law will irritate opposition politicians, students, and other groups which have demanded that it be abolished quickly. Chun did not say which conditions prevent its abolition, but the country has been rocked by student demonstrations on campus and a growing number of labor disputes this spring.
Chun also seemed determined to counter the awareness of many South Koreans that he is unpopular with the United States, particularly the American military, which maintains more than 30,000 troops in this country.
That unpopularity stems from the fact that during the December uprising of young generals he ordered elements of one division moved into Seoul, without the approval of a joint command shared by American officers. That movement broke a long-standing agreement that U.S. authorization must be sought to move any substantial number of South Korean troops.
American sources here have made no secret of their disapproval and are believed to have tried at one time to have Chun dismissed from military service.
Chun told the local reporters today that there had been a "misunderstanding" with the Americans over the Dec. 12 incident and that it has now been "completely erased."
Chun also described as untrue the reports that the U.S. officials here had complained about his appointment to the KCIA.