SINGAPORE, JUNE 17 -- Secretary of State George P. Shultz, voicing concern over the escalating political crisis in South Korea, said today that the United States would like to see President Chun Doo Hwan resume a political dialogue with Korean opposition leaders, but that Washington was limited in trying to apply pressure to the government in Seoul.
"We express ourselves, and I think our importance causes people to pay attention to us," Shultz said, "but we are not going around twisting people's arms in any egregious way."
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane en route here from Manila, where he praised President Corazon Aquino's restoration of democracy in the Philippines, Shultz said he saw few parallels between the widening antigovernment protests in South Korea and last year's successful "people's power" revolution that overthrew president Ferdinand Marcos. Shultz called South Korea a country without a real "democratic tradition," where political confrontation is "part of the Korean character."
But Shultz said he saw the current situation in South Korea as part of a worldwide process of authoritarian regimes giving way to more democratic governments, a process, he said, in which the United States can give advice, but must ultimately sit on the sidelines.
"This problem of managing transitions in countries from one kind of government to a more democratic government is extremely tricky," Shultz said, in his first extensive comments since the street protests escalated in Seoul last week. "We have seen it all around the world and we have been involved in it all around the world." He mentioned specifically Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Greece as countries where the transition has been successful, and Iran and Nicaragua where "it didn't work."
"It's a very widespread thing that's taken place, and each case is different," he said. "We try to be there to give counsel, to use our influence to see that these transitions take place in a peaceful and orderly way." He added, "We have a big stake in seeing this movement to democracy succeed."
The best posture now for the United States, he said, was to "exercise some restraint in acting as though you've got all the answers. You've got to help them bring the answers out of their own environment."
A senior U.S. official, speaking later here to reporters, said that the United States was specifically urging Chun to make changes in election laws in advance of the balloting for a new president and to lift restrictions on the press.
A main theme of street demonstrations has been anger at Chun's decision in April to suspend debate on possible constitutional changes, including direct elections, until after the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Chun has selected Roh Tae Woo, a fellow former general, as his successor. Roh is expected to be confirmed by a largely progovernment electoral college in December.
The senior American official said Chun could still make significant election reforms even before the constitutional talks resume, which might encourage the oppositon leaders to drop their plans for an election boycott.
The official stopped short of saying whether the United States was applying any behind-the-scenes pressure on Chun. "We are in continuing touch with the various political leaders in South Korea -- government and opposition people," he said. "I would say we're trying to lean on everybody."
Shultz arrived here today with his delegation for meetings with the foreign ministers of Southeast Asia's six noncommunist countries, grouped in the ASEAN alliance. All six countries -- Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei -- remain firmly committed to the West, but in their final communique they gently chided western countries for not doing more to help relieve the region's refugee burden.
The statement blamed Vietnam primarily for creating the harsh conditions that led to the current refugee plight. The foreign ministers urged Hanoi to allow the orderly departure of refugees through the United Nations program.