KOREA

A nation votes for democracy

PETER MCGILL February 25 1985
KOREA

A nation votes for democracy

PETER MCGILL February 25 1985

A nation votes for democracy

KOREA

When Kim Dae Jung was negotiating his return to South Korea last month, he offered President Chun Doo Hwan a difficult choice. On the one hand, the opposition leader said he would agree not to interfere in Korea’s Feb. 12 elections by postponing his return from a 30-month exile in the United States. But the cost of that concession would be high—a publicityrich trip through Western Europe with Kim building support for his antigovernment party. On the other hand, Kim said that he was prepared to cancel the European tour if Seoul allowed him to return before last week’s vote. In the end, Chun decided to let Kim return four days before the elections, but kept him under house arrest in his modest west Seoul home. It may have been the wrong decision.

As Koreans went to the polls in record numbers—roughly 84 per cent of the nation’s 24 million voters cast ballots— it was clear that even Kim’s unseen presence had affected the results. Chun’s ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP) managed to retain its majority control of the national assembly, capturing 148 of 276 seats, only three fewer than it won in the 1981 election. But largely at the expense of other opposition parties, Kim’s newly formed New Korean Democratic Party (NKDP) made a stunning debut, claiming 30 per cent of the popular vote and 67 seats—making it, in effect, the official opposition. Declared Kim: “The day of the rubber stamp is gone.” And the NKDP might

have made even greater inroads if the country’s electoral laws did not automatically award the party winning a majority—Chun’s djp—an additional 61 seats.

Still, observers agreed that the election outcome had dramatically altered Korea’s political landscape. “The whole ball game has changed,” said one Western diplomat in Seoul. “There is now a real opposition.” Chun himself conceded that the results reflected the nation’s “expectations for stability and the establishment of democracy.” A former general, Chun seized power in a 1980 coup and has pledged to step down in 1988 at the end of his seven-year term.

Kim said that stability will now depend on whether Chun agrees to open a dialogue with his opponents or continues to rule dictatorially. Among Kim’s demands: lifting the prohibition that bars him from politics until 1988 and an official amnesty from his 20-year prison sentence for sedition. The conviction, most observers agree, was engineered by Chun in 1980 after antigovernment riots in Kwangju, Kim’s political power base. The sentence was suspended in 1982, allowing Kim to emigrate.

If Kim does return to politics, he will have to contend with his new NKDP ally—and former rival—Kim Young Sam. Campaigning for democracy, the two dissidents agreed to submerge their differences. But if the truce is broken, it could split and weaken the opposition’s newfound strength.

-PETER MCGILL in Seoul.