SEOUL, JULY 1 -- For the past two years, direct presidential elections have been synonymous with democracy in the eyes of millions of South Koreans. Now that the government has agreed to hold them, questions are arising over whether the elections can be fair.

Roh Tae Woo, chairman of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, says the answer is yes. "A revised election law should . . . ensure maximum fairness and justness in election management, from the campaigns to the casting, opening and counting of ballots," he said in a television address Monday.

But dissidents say they are skeptical. "There is no real guarantee that free elections can be held," senior opposition leader Kim Dae Jung said today.

Unlike the Philippines, where massive ballot-box fraud marked the presidential election in 1986, opposition officials and other analysts here are less concerned about cheating on election day than about what happens before.

"What we worry about most are the irregularities that happen during the election campaign," said Park Chan Jong, chairman of the main opposition party's policy committee.

In South Korean politics, the government party historically has had the advantage, controlling patronage through appointment of local officials, distribution of local funds, access to the news media, and the country's omnipresent intelligence network.

"The government allocates the budget to the districts for construction, to build bridges," said Kim Kwang Woong, a professor of public administration at Seoul National University. "They say {to the local officials} if you support this guy, you will get a certain post."

By contrast, the main opposition party, the Reunification Democratic Party, was set up only two months ago, has limited funds, and has yet to move into its own office.

South Koreans sometimes talk as if they have never had direct elections. In fact, six of the 12 elections since the country's founding in 1948 have been by that system. The others have been through indirect electoral college systems.

The last direct popular election of a president was in 1971, when then-president Park Chung Hee ran against Kim Dae Jung. Kim got 45.3 percent of the vote, losing by less than a million votes. It is commonly believed here that Park's winning margin came from the bloc vote of the 600,000-member military.

A year later, Park amended the constitution, abandoning the direct presidential system for an indirect one. His successor, Chun Doo Hwan, came to power in 1980 after a military coup and amended the constitution again, creating the present electoral college.

The opposition has long contended that the electoral college is open to manipulation by the ruling party.

"Members are ostensibly elected through secret ballot," said a western diplomat here. In practice, he said, they are prominent citizens, many of whom hold government jobs and are "therefore progovernment by definition."

Now that Chun has reversed longstanding government policy and agreed to direct elections, both government and opposition camps will be trying to work out an acceptable new constitution and presidential election law in time to conduct voting late this year.

The most important thing that the government can do to ensure fair elections, according to Prof. Kim, is to get out of election activities. Local autonomy and more press freedom, which are among the political reforms that Chun pledged to implement today, will help.

But opposition officials say they have doubts about how far the government will go to make real changes, and they say there is little they can do.

"Many things cannot be seen by the eyes, and are very difficult to change by laws," said opposition official Park. "You cannot tell rich people not to give money to the government candidates."

Some opposition members have suggested that if Chun is serious about fair elections, he should immediately turn over decision-making power to a "pan-national" coalition cabinet that would serve as a kind of interim government and oversee the election. Ruling party officials have rejected that idea.

Despite their apprehensions, opposition officials and some analysts say one factor is likely to be decisive in pressing the government for a fair election.

"Eighty-four million eyes of the Korean people are going to be watching for a fair election," said opposition leader Kim Young Sam. "How can they dare not have an honest election?"

@Caption: Kim Young Sam,left, visiting a national police hospital.Right, South Koreans gather in front of a television set to watch President Chun Doo Hwan.