SEOUL, JUNE 24 -- Something unprecedented happened earlier this week when members of South Korea's ruling party convened an emergency caucus amid country's most serious crisis in seven years.

They held a debate.

During Sunday's six-hour caucus, some members criticized their party president and the country's leader, Chun Doo Hwan. Some even suggested a national referendum to allow people to decide what kind of government the country should have.

In the six-year history of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, the leadership and its policies have never been open to challenge from rank-and-file party members. But the dramatic protests of the past two weeks in favor of democracy appear to have emboldened Chun's critics even within his own party.

Political parties here, whether government or opposition, historically have been dominated by one leader. Rarely are major decisions made through the kind of democratic give-and-take common in the West, party members and analysts say.

Confucian traditions that underlie Korean society encourage hierarchy and obedience to leaders. And since Korea became independent in 1948, it has been ruled by a succession of authoritarian governments that have done little to foster the development of democratic institutions.

In the recent history of Korean politics, Sunday's debate was "an unusual, uninhibited, free expression of all kinds of views," said an Asian diplomat here. "The very fact that this kind of debate took place and was then made semipublic seems extraordinary," he said.

Extensive coverage of the caucus appeared in Korean newspapers after the meeting. The Korea Times, an English-language daily, called it the most "democratic" caucus since the party's founding in 1981.

Some of the caucus proposals, such as a path-breaking meeting between Chun and opposition leader Kim Young Sam, and the release from house arrest of dissident leader Kim Dae Jung, were forwarded to Chun and took effect today.

The driving force behind the debate and the subsequent recommendations was a perception that South Korea was on the verge of social breakdown, according to the diplomat.

Since June 10, thousands of students have mounted demonstrations in city streets, and Chun is said to be under extreme pressure to introduce democratic reforms.

"It was a vital moment for us," said Duwan Pong, a ruling party member and former presidential spokesman. "It was a question of whether we would survive or go down."

The importance of the Sunday caucus, according to one Korean analyst, was that it showed that party members, aware of growing middle-class support for the student demonstrators, were beginning publicly to question the wisdom of one-man domination by Chun, particularly his April decision to cancel talks with the opposition on amending the constitution.

Many party members did not know about that decision until Chun announced it on television, the analyst said.

The decision to break off talks with the opposition was regarded as a highly unpopular move. Chun's suspension of the political dialogue is commonly seen as the spark that ignited the violent street demonstrations that began June 10.

Chun's decision was also unpopular with many in the party, one party member said. "When he made that April 13 decision, he just assumed that people would accept it without resistance. If he had asked us first, we would have told him it would not be well received."

Chun's subsequent nomination of close associate and ruling party chairman Roh Tae Woo to succeed him as president, government disclosures of a cover-up in the torture death of a student, and continuous street protests all put "tremendous pressure" on the ruling party, one western analyst said. The party had to find a peaceful solution to the crisis when its members met Sunday, the analyst added.

"No one wanted martial law, no one wanted to see a social revolution," said a ruling party member.

It remains to be seen whether the ruling party's new boldness can be sustained, or whether it is only a passing phenomenon that will succumb to the traditional dominance in South Korea of the leader's voice.