A new military-dominated council to run South Korea, announced from Seoul in direct contradiction of U.S. appeals, was seen by high officials here yesterday as an interim step in the drive by a group of generals to take full control of that country.
Concerned officials meeting at the State Department, in the wake of the unwelcome announcement from Seoul late Friday (U.S. time), were reported to expect additional steps by the Korean military to consolidate their nearly total grip on the political process.
According to participants, no final conclusions about the U.S. response to the latest developments were reached iln yesterday's three-hour meeting of State Department, Defense Department and National Security Council officials under the chairmanship of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke.
No public statements were issued, but an official said the United States will be prepared in days to come to repeat its call for a resumption of progress in Seoul toward a broadly based and relatively open civilian government.
President Carter, responding to questions by Cable News Network in an interview to be broadcast today, cast little light on how far the nation will go to advance its views in the face of the continuing power play by Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan and other military leaders in Seoul. p
A top State Department official, speaking to reporters late Friday afternoon before the announcement of the military-run committee, said the United States will attempt to communicate its views in every way possible without using "clumsy methods" which would backfire.
Expressing understanding that the Korean military may be reluctant to permit a return to democratic rule after the lengthy autocracy of the late president Park Chung Hee, the high U.S. official compared the situation to stepping into the cold waters off the coast of Maine. The official, who could not be quoted by name under the terms of the briefing, said at first "your toes turn blue" as they are dipped into the ocean -- "but anybody in Maine can tell you that the way to do it is to plunge right in."
It is highly unlikely that the Korean generals will plunge into a democratic arena they seem bent on destroying, officials conceded. the officials emphasized that Washington's intense concern was grounded less in political preference than in a calculation that tightfisted military rule may be unacceptable in today's Korea and thus cause dangerous instability.
"This is not a human rights issue," said one of the senior U.S. planners.
"It is a question of the national interest of the United States in achieving and maintaining stability in Northeast Asia."
Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, who chaired a top-level policy-making session on Korea 10 days ago and has held daily briefings on the subject since, is expected to convene another interagency meeting on the matter in the next week or so.