SEOUL, JULY 1 (WEDNESDAY) -- It was ruling party chairman Roh Tae Woo who sparked the political crisis that swept through the streets of South Korean cities for three weeks. Now, it is Roh who miraculously seems to have solved it.
The protests began June 10, hours after Roh appeared on a convention stage with President Chun Doo Hwan and accepted the ruling party's nomination for president. In the first days of the escalating street violence, Roh's future seemed bleak.
But after a bold political stroke that startled many Koreans, Roh is being hailed as a sort of democratic hero, the man who brought the country through the greatest political storm it has faced in years.
Monday morning Roh made a dramatic and much welcomed television address to the nation, calling on Chun to grant virtually all the opposition's demands and saying he would resign all his posts if that did not happen.
In a nationwide television address, Chun said he accepts Roh's proposals for change, which include election of the president by direct popular vote.
In his address, Chun said he was reversing himself because "the general public has an ardent desire to choose the president directly."
It remains unclear how much of the past few days' events is part of a genuine move for change, and how much is clever political theatrics staged in advance by Roh and his longtime associate Chun.
What is clear, though, is that the ruling Democratic Justice Party has plucked advantage from near disaster. It now has a candidate who appears to have his own strengths, as well as distance in the public mind from the unpopular Chun.
"Until now he's been seen as weak and deferring to Chun," said a western diplomat in Seoul. "His stock has risen considerably, although it's still too soon to say whether it's enough to get him elected."
Chun and Roh have been together since the start of their careers. They attended the Korean military academy together and advanced through the ranks of the South Korean Army. In December 1979, as junior generals, they staged a coup d'etat that later would put Chun in office.
After resigning from the Army, Roh served in a string of top-level Cabinet and other government positions, including one overseeing preparations for the 1988 Summer Olympics. In 1985, he became ruling party chairman.
In contrast to the dour and distant Chun, Roh is open and affable. He seems at ease in the world of Korean politics, where personal contact is important.
Last year it became known that Roh was being groomed to take over in February 1988 when Chun steps down at the end of a seven-year term. Chun praised the plan as a move toward democracy that would mark the first peaceful transition of power in South Korea's 39-year history.
On June 10, members of the ruling party gathered in a Seoul gymnastics stadium for a rubber-stamp convention. The climax found Chun and Roh standing together on the platform, smiling and raising clasped hands in salute to the assembled delegates.
Hours later, the streets erupted in Seoul and other cities. To many Koreans watching on television, what had happened was simply the formal transfer of power from one military dictator to another.
That and other festering complaints against the government brought protesters out in unusual numbers, night after night. Tear gas did not disperse them.
Government officials, after a series of emergency consultations, decided to use negotiations rather than force to solve the crisis. Roh quickly emerged as the point man.
He moved around town in a sort of shuttle diplomacy, visiting opposition leaders at their offices to seek a deal. He declared he would not let his own "position" stand in the way of a negotiated settlement.
People wondered what Roh meant. On Monday morning, without warning, they found out when he went on television.
Roh said what millions of Koreans wanted to hear -- that the government had gone wrong.
"The people are the masters of the country, and the people's will must come before everything else," he said solemnly.
"Now that the Olympics are approaching, all of us are responsible for avoiding the national disgrace of dividing ourselves and thus causing the world to ridicule us."
Most people expect that Roh soon will be renominated as the ruling party's candidate under a new electoral system based on a direct popular vote.
The South Korean middle class -- of which most people here consider themselves members -- wants political change, an increase of democratic freedoms. It also wants stability, to protect the economic development that is underway.
It was clear that change was not coming with Chun. The opposition wants change, but the question now is whether people will find Roh the better choice, providing both change and stability.
Some say Roh will not shed so easily his military blemishes. He is remembered for pulling troops off the frontier with North Korea to back Chun during the coup. He also is seen as sharing blame for more than 200 deaths when Army troops put down demonstrations in Kwangju city in 1980 during Chun's rise to power.
"One hundred days of wrongdoing will not be forgiven by one day's good-doing," predicted a prominent Korean journalist.