SEOUL -- Amid the heat of the campaign and the worries about what may follow, it is sometimes easy to overlook the remarkable events taking place as South Korea experiments with democracy.
A young woman who had been sexually tortured by police last year stood up to tell her story to a large rally at Korea University. In a country where such matters are almost never openly discussed, the crowd rose in tribute to her courage even before she began to speak, the women rising first, then the men.
Roh Tae Woo, ruling party candidate for president and a key official in the current regime, apologized last week to the Korean people for the financial scandals and police torture cases of the past seven years. One year ago, such things did not officially exist.
Kim Dae Jung spoke on television. One year ago, Kim Dae Jung barely existed for the public here; the nation's best-known dissident leader, he was confined to his house by police and was mentioned rarely, and always unflatteringly, in the officially controlled press.
Kim spoke haltingly, almost shyly, as he attempted to counter years of government propaganda that portrayed him as procommunist in a nation where anticommunism is gospel. Yes, he said, he had joined a leftist group shortly after World War II, but he had quit after a few months and had devoted himself to democracy ever since.
To some foreigners, Kim seemed weak and tired. But many Koreans said they were moved to see a human side of the man whom the government has portrayed for so long as a dangerous, devious agitator.
None of this could have been imagined last May, when President Chun Doo Hwan seemed well on his way to anointing his former Army chum Roh as his successor. But in June people took to the streets, clashing with police until Chun agreed to allow the nation's first free election in 16 years.
Since then, the spectacle of millions of Koreans soberly preparing for their Dec. 16 election, at once hopeful and skeptical, has been the most moving sight of all. On Saturday more than 3 million ventured into the cold to listen to one of the candidates speak -- one in 14 South Koreans giving their Saturday afternoon to a political rally.
Virtually all South Korean adults can read, and these days it seems everyone is snapping up newspapers, browsing among dozens of instant campaign biographies or ambling slowly along sidewalks from campaign poster to campaign poster, almost visibly savoring the notion that they finally may have a say in their future.
It is somewhat disorienting to listen to everyone talking politics and yet know that it could all collapse -- that the voter expressing his opinion today could be jailed next month for doing so, that the long-powerful military and its allies might yet grow impatient with the messiness of democratic exchange.
South Korea, after all, has come close before, but failed, and the campaign this time too has seen its share of violence, of regional hatred, of pandering. Moreover, of late the role models -- Haiti, the Philippines -- have been dispiriting.
Still, in their reserve, their skepticism, the Koreans may have an edge over those unhappy places. The Koreans never danced in the streets, never let themselves forget the dangers, even on June 29, when the weeks of tear gas and firebombs had yielded the promise of an election. And now, they seem well aware of the perils that could nullify their vote -- from the left, from the right, from those who too gullibly accept the promises now being dispensed from every podium. Realistic, determined, with a sense of humor and proportion often lacking in the candidates, the voters now seem to be South Korea's best hope.
AMONG the more intriguing of the recent charges and countercharges was one lodged last weekend by a longtime critic of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The critic, the Rev. Tahk Myung Hwan, charged that opposition candidate Kim Young Sam had received substantial sums of money from Moon and his Unification Church.
Tahk alleged that Kim had, in return, promised if elected to allow the church to build a 100-story skyscraper near the National Assembly here, permits for which have been denied by the current government.
Tahk also charged that the fourth candidate, former prime minister Kim Jong Pil, helped the Unification Church's Il Hwa Co. -- which makes ginseng products and the popular Ginseng-Up and McCol drinks -- avoid a hefty tax judgment in 1977.
Both Kims strenuously denied the charges. "Nonsense . . . a complete fabrication . . . not worthy of even a glance," Kim Young Sam's spokesmen said. "Never happened . . . . an impossible thing," said Kim Jong Pil's aide.
If found to have merit, the accusations could damage the candidates among mainstream Christians, who make up one-quarter of the electorate and many of whom view the Unification Church as a pseudo-religion.
Tahk offered no documentary evidence, however, and his charges -- coming 10 days before the election -- seemed likely to be only the first of many late-blooming attacks. Such last-minute salvos are an old tradition here.
The source of Tahk's information allegedly was a close Kim Young Sam aide who last week switched sides to Kim Dae Jung. Such switches are traditional, too, and the politicians or factions involved are sometimes known as sakura.
It is no coincidence, by the way, that the name is the Japanese word for Japan's national tree, the cherry. Korea was ruled by Japan before World War II, and the Koreans showed how they felt about that by adopting the word to refer to a two-faced, double-dealing politician.
PERHAPS the ultimate sign of the good sense of Korean voters is the fact that they have not allowed the election to interfere with the December rite of kimchi-making.
Kimchi is the garlicky, peppery, fiery vegetable side dish that Koreans eat with their rice at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is an essential part of the culture, and its aroma permeates the nation. When South Korean soldiers fought alongside U.S. GIs during the Vietnam war, the kimchi had to be flown in to keep their spirits high.
"Koreans can live without meat, but God forbid that they be denied kimchi," the Korea Herald explained.
December is the month for making the kimchi and ladling it into large earthen pots, where it gathers strength through the winter. According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, the average Korean family this month has bought and chopped 30 heads of cabbage, 34 large radish roots, 83 bulbs of garlic, 5.8 pounds of red pepper and about $20 worth of green onions, ginger, fish and raw oysters.
Seoul residents alone will consume 2,500 tons of garlic.
"There's no better way to heat the blood than by daily filling one's stomach with raw fire," the Herald said. Perhaps a peaceful election isn't in the cards.