SEOUL, JUNE 28 -- Three years after acceding to popular demands for free elections and democracy in South Korea, President Roh Tae Woo reflected today on the difficult process he set in motion June 29, 1987.

"Some people say the government is too weak and some say the government is getting too authoritarian," Roh acknowledged, speaking in the same soft voice that has astonished and at times exasperated a nation accustomed to the harsh, firm tones of military dictators.

In fact, he said, he has deliberately sought to step back from national affairs to allow people to become more self-reliant, while providing minimum law and order to allow democracy to flourish.

As nations from Eastern Europe to Latin America struggle to move from authoritarian rule to democracy and free markets, South Korea's experiment in that direction is instructive. This Asian nation of 42 million people has succumbed neither to chaos nor to a return to military rule, both widely predicted three years ago. In that sense, the experiment has been a success.

Yet South Korea still shows extraordinary difficulty in moving to democracy after decades of repression. Almost no one here considers the experiment complete, and almost no one is fully satisfied with the results so far.

From the left, critics cite continuing human-rights violations, suppression of some forms of literature and expression, and infringements on labor organizing.

They note that the pervasive internal security apparatus constructed during three decades of military rule remains intact and, by most accounts, heavily involved in domestic affairs.

From the right, critics bemoan a loss of social discipline that has allowed consumption to increase faster than production and wages to rise faster than productivity. Conservatives fret that the clamoring of special interests could derail the nation's march toward prosperity.

Both sides agree that in demanding democracy in street demonstrations three years ago, South Koreans were also demanding a better material life, raising expectations almost impossible to fulfill.

In separate interviews today, both Roh and his chief critic, opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, said that the greatest challenge ahead is to ease the widespread sense of relative poverty among those who have been left behind.

Democratization, said Roh aide Lee Hong Koo, "is a much more complicated task and much more difficult process than we had imagined."

The process of democratization here began in June 1987, when demonstrations launched by students but drawing wide middle-class support prompted Roh to promise direct elections. Roh -- a former general and confidant of then-dictator Chun Doo Hwan -- had just been selected by the ruling party to succeed Chun, and the decision to allow national balloting was an unexpected reversal of policy.

The election was held in December 1987, and Roh took advantage of a divided opposition to win the presidential election with less than 37 percent of the popular vote. Opposition candidates, however, took control of the parliament.

Today, Roh's old friend Chun remains in disgraced exile in a remote Buddhist temple, while Kim, a former political prisoner once sentenced to death, is a leader in the National Assembly. Roh himself has wavered between a policy of cautious reform and an emphasis on order and stability.

Roh's record reflects an ambivalence on the part of South Koreans, Lee said in an interview this week. "On the one hand, they don't want government to be too strong," Lee said. "On the other hand, as soon as something goes wrong, almost as a matter of habit or political culture, they want government to solve it."

When Seoul's high-flying stock market suddenly fell earthward, for example, investors took to the streets, demanding government action to send prices upward again.

This spring, Roh's regime has "taken a firmer stance," spokesman Park Shin Il said, than during its first two years, in response to criticism that it had allowed democratization to spin out of control.

"People felt like everything must be coming apart," Park said.

So Roh ordered a crackdown on criminals and land speculators. His government came down harder on labor unions. More students and dissidents were put in jail, drawing criticism from Amnesty International and other human-rights groups.

Phee Jung Sun, a former union official who heads the Korea Research and Information Center, likened the crackdown to the time of Chun Doo Hwan's coup d'etat a decade ago. "Everything seems to be turning back to the old ways," he said.

Lee Chul, an opposition member of the National Assembly who also was imprisoned under military rule, was less gloomy, saying that the atmosphere is undeniably freer than before. Newspapers criticize the government with few inhibitions, and almost no one talks of a possible military coup anymore.

But Lee said that instruments of past repression -- the laws and bureaucracies that Chun and others put in place -- have yet to be dismantled, allowing the government to pressure opponents whenever it chooses.

Sitting in his National Assembly office, Lee said internal-security operatives remain ubiquitous. "Even this telephone is tapped," he said.

"There are various ways they control us," Kim Dae Jung said. "Through spies and other tools, they collect information on all opposition groups, and they find weaknesses -- money scandals, women scandals -- to use against them."

Lee Hong Koo, a cabinet-level presidential aide on political affairs, denied that the National Security Planning Agency -- formerly the Korean CIA -- still interferes in domestic politics. But, he added, "Bureaucracy doesn't change overnight."

South Korea has also grappled with other dilemmas facing democratizing nations. The nation struggled to balance its desire to punish past misdeeds of those in power against a desire to move forward and avoid revenge. It had to accept that dissident leaders, viewed as selfless heroes while repressed, would show the same human ambitions and frailties of politicians everywhere when freed to pursue power.

And the nation witnessed an outpouring of long-repressed grievances based on class or region. When high-ranking police officers in Ulsan received merit awards for their role in crushing a strike by Hyundai shipyard workers in April, rank-and-file policemen complained that they had been unfairly excluded from recognition.

"When all the bonds of restraint are done away with, then all the pent-up demands and desires, all these contradictory forces, are erupting at the same time and these forces are hard to control," Roh said.

Perhaps nothing chilled the South Koreans more than the fear, which peaked this year, that democracy might be bad for economic growth. After topping 12 percent in 1987 and 1988, the economy's growth rate fell below 7 percent in 1989, and the trade surplus fell precipitously. Suddenly the nation saw itself teetering between world recognition as an advanced nation and a plunge back to its Third World status of not long ago.

But Koo Bon Ho, president of the Korea Development Institute, a government-affiliated think tank, said the economy and trade account are both showing signs of recovery.

Still, democratization has focused attention on income distribution as well as outright growth. "Outsiders always say that our economic situation is better than in North Korea, and this is quite true," Kim Dae Jung said. "But it misses one thing: people's feeling of relative poverty is far worse here than in the North. That is our weak point."

Roh, midway through his five-year term, seemed to agree. "The most important thing I would like to accomplish now is a very practical problem: to end the conflict between different income groups, to get rid of the feeling of relative poverty felt by many people," the president said. "I would like to integrate the people into a sense of social harmony."