Following 18 years of stern military dominated rule by assassinated president Park Chung Hee, South Korea is well on its way to a repeat performance under a new warrior leader, Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan.
Some South Koreans are dismayed, while others display passive acceptance. Hardly anybody seems enthusiastic.
It is increasingly apparent to all, however, that the emergence of Chon in a nighttime Army showdown last Dec. 12 was the beginning of a new cycle of military dominance that is likely to last for many months in one form or another.
And it is increasingly likely, in view of Chon's continuing acquisition of power and the steady elimination of alternatives, that the 47-year-old general will run the new system openly rather than from behind the scenes.
In an interview in his office as chairman of the standing committee of the "special committee for national security measures" -- a shadow government created two months ago, which wields more power than civilian ministries -- Chon would not say whether he plans to leave the Army and run for president next spring as widely rumored. But he refused to rule out such a decision, and failed to repeat his previously routine protestations that he is a simple soldier who intends to return to the barracks.
"I've never run away from problems since the sudden death of the president" last Oct. 26. "It is not wise for me to foresee the future," he said in answer to a question about whether he will run for office.
Saying that he had not planned the events that thrust him to a position of great power, Chon said that "divine providence" seemed to have played a role. He expressed regret that "I cannot answer with confidence" what his future role will be.
That remark was the only sign of uncertainty amid an impressive display of self-assurance, political sophistication and lack of coyness or hesitation about expressing his views.
Of greatest immediate importance is Chon's emphatically stated opinion that "given the weight of the challenge and people's expectations, I'm bound to believe that this country is going to need a strong presidential leadership" in the future.
The issue of whether there should be a strong presidency, as exercised by Park Chung Hee, or a more diffuse system in which power is shared and checked by others, is the central question being debated by drafters of a new constitution that has been promised this fall.
The current president, a Confucian elder statesman named Choi Kyu Hah, whose clout is doubtful, is reported to lean toward dispersion of power under a circumscribed chief executive.
Chon's clearly stated preference for a strong presidency, and his statement that those who seek diffusion of power are "a limited minority," may be a sign of confidence in his own position. Whether all of Chon's fellow generals feel the same remains unclear.
There clearly is support for a strong presidency. Visits last Saturday to several Korean farmers, some who greatly admired the late president and some who did not, disclosed a uniformly strong sentiment for direct popular election of the president, an arrangement that clearly implies a strong presidential system.
Until two months ago the clear favorites for a future presidential race were the "three Kims," a diverse trio who bear the same popular Korean clan name. On May 17, however, Chon and fellow generals imposed full martial law and a wave of arrests that changed the picture dramatically overnight. The three Kims are:
Former prime minister Kim Jong Pil, the late president's longtime aide and chairman of the majority political party, was arrested on grounds of corruption forced to renounce all public offices and to agree to return a fortune of $36 million accumulated during years in power.
Former presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung, the most colorful leadership figure of the opposition, was arrested on sedition charges and imprisoned awaiting trial for his life before a military court. An international figure, Kim has been the subject of expressions of concern from a variety of Western and Eastern nations and, earlier this week, representations from the 95-member nonaligned movement.
Opposition party chairman Kim Young Sam, who maintained the nominal leadership of his party despite challenges from several quarters, was placed under house arrest from which he has not emerged. Moreover, eight senior legislative leaders of his party, plus six from the majority party, were arrested a week ago on suspicion of corrupt practices during the freebooting political era of the past. If this Kim is eventually permitted to run, it will be as candidate of a shattered party organization.
The National Assembly, South Korea's legislature, has been forbidden to most since the imposition of martial law.
Censorship of the domestic press has been tight, and foreign periodicals mentioning Korea arrive on newstands with paragraphs and sometimes whole pages scissored out on the order of censors. A recent interview in the Asian Wall Street Journal with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke was riddled with cutouts, as if censors had been playing at making paper dolls.
Estimates of the number of persons being held on political grounds range from 300 to 800.
These numbers exclude several hundred persons still believed held due to the mid-May rebellion in the southwestern city of Kwangju. According to church sources, more than 1,000 Kwangju families report family members still missing.
Dissidents said the lid on political speech and association is tighter now than during all but the most exceptional periods of the Park rule.
"We can't hear or say anything," said one of the most widely respected dissident figures, placing his hands first over his ears and then his mouth. He had been recently released from detention due to his advanced age.
Most of the South Korea populace is said to be either unaware of or unconcerned about the political clampdown that has been a periodic feature of the country's history since World War II.
However, nearly everyone is aware that the military has assumed control and that its emerging leader is the balding, chunky Gen. Chon, who is frequently pictured on front pages in the civilian garb he wears in his busy round of duties as chairman of the standing committee.
As the succession process is sorted out, martial law appears to be broadly accepted. But in the long run a new leadership will have to obtain a mandate from the public through the ballot box to be considered legitimate.
This may not be as simple as it sounds despite the paucity of alternatives. Unlike Park, who came to power in a military coup in 1981 on a wave of popular discontent with political backbiting and instability, there is little demand at the moment for a new period of authoritarian rule.
"We are mentally and spiritually tired after 18 years of military dictatorship," said a Seoul intellectual with a good ear for popular sentiment. "People are not ready to respond easily to the music of variations on the theme of Park."
Once in power Park won most of his popular support through promises and performance of economic gains which transformed Korean life. But instead of the "economic miracle" of a sustained gross national product growth spurt of about 9 percent annually during his entire rule. Park's successors face low growth or even a drop (as in the first six months of this year), combined with rising prices and growing unemployment.
The generals' best bet so far, in terms of popular applause, is the sustained purge of political, bureaucratic and quasi-public officialdom at the direction of Chon's "special committee." Close to 10,000 people have been dismissed or arrested, according to official reports, ranging from highly visible former Cabinet ministers and presidential cronies to tax and customs collectors.
The "purification" drive, which resembles a similar effort by Park following his 1961 coup, has the multiple advantage of winning public applause enforcing bureaucratic loyalty, making vacancies to accommodate new office holders and appealing to the moralistic instincts of the new military leadership.
At his point, the key question about Chon is not so much his public standing, which seems modest if slowly improving, but his standing within the ranks of the all-powerful military. The answer, as best it could be learned during a week's visit to South Korea, is that he is unquestioned and unchallenged as the senior spokesman of the highest ranking and most sensitively placed officers.
It is nuclear, however, that the consensus of the senior military has accepted him as the next political leader of the country.
Gen. Ro Tae Woo, commander of the sensitive Seoul military district and a military academy classmate and longtime friend of Chun, said in an interview that he did not personally expect any military officer to take off his uniform and become a civilian political leader in the near future.
Ro insisted that the military is ready to "go back to its mission" of national defense when next year's planned elections bring forth a new civilian leadership.
No member of the current military high command has been heard explicitly to oppose Chon as the future national leader. But the evidence suggests they have not yet signed up in his political ranks.
As Chon, Ro and other military officials see it, national security in the face of the continuing threat from the communist North Korea is the overriding priority now and in the future and they speak as if any substantial domestic turbulence is a threat to that security.