Western politicians paying courtesy calls on South Korea face a dilemma, one that confronted Prime Minister Brian Mulroney this week. The nation of 42 million is admired by its Western allies as Asia’s latest “economic miracle” and also as a bulwark against communism. But its reputation is tarnished by a basic lack of democratic freedoms. Censorship, torture and imprisonment without trial are routine elements of political life.
As a result, Mulroney decided in advance of his three-day visit to strike a diplomatic balance between praise and criticism in his talks with South Korean government and business leaders. His main priority was to improve a lopsided trade picture: Canada suffered an $831million trade deficit with South Korea last year. At the same time,
Mulroney planned to voice concerns about human rights, a source of growing internal unrest in recent weeks.
Emboldened by February’s popular overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, South Korea’s opposition forces have staged the country’s biggest protest demonstrations since
President Chun Doo-hwan, 55, seized power in a military coup six years ago. Chanting “Down with dictatorship” and “Go away U.S. imperialism,” some 10,000 demonstrators clashed with riot police on May 3 at Inchon, 30 km from the capital of Seoul. And in Seoul last week a policeman died in a burning vehicle as 3,000 students fought police with gasoline bombs. Alarmed by the anti-American tone of the protests, the Chun government called them “revolutionary, violent activities by leftist forces” allied with North Korean communism.
But the Chun government faces a much broader threat from the popular opposition led by the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP). Two rival NKDP factions—one led by the conservative Kim Young Sam and the other by the populist Kim Dae Jung—have recently united in a massive campaign for constitutional reform. In a
startling move two weeks ago, Chun extended an olive branch to his opponents by offering to consider constitutional reforms before his seven-year term expires in 1988—if they drop their street protests. But opposition leaders denounced the offer as a “trick,” and con-
tinued their campaign for the direct election of the president by the people. They say that the existing system, whereby a 5,000-member electoral college picks the president, is corrupt.
And South Korea also has all the trappings of a police state. Plainclothes police lurk outside subway underpasses in Seoul, making spot-checks on suspect pedestrians. Amnesty International reported in March on documented cases of police torture involving beatings, cigarette burns, sleep deprivation and electric shock. Dissidents daring to criticize the government have been jailed as Communist subversives.
Despite such evidence of injustice, most Western leaders are reluctant to condemn Chun’s government. Visiting Seoul last week, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz defended Chun’s attempts at reform. “No one says the situation in human rights is perfect,” he said, “not here, not in the United States, not anywhere.” He also praised the country’s “breathtaking” prosperity. In fact, South Korea’s gross national product has grown an average 6.7 per cent annually since 1981. Ironically, economic growth may be a factor in the escalating unrest. During the 1970s the economy relied mainly on the lowwage, labor-intensive manufacture of clothing, textiles and plastics. But industry has diversified into making cars, ships and electronic components—and an educated middle class has emerged to question the political system.
But some analysts say one reason Chun is unwilling to loosen his iron grip on that system is his desire to keep his Democratic Justice Party in power through the 1988 summer Olympic Games. The government, which is investing more than $4 billion (Can.) in the Games, is counting on the smooth operation of the event to demonstrate what Defence Minister Yoon Sung Min has called South Korea’s “smooth leap into the developed world.” At the same time, Yoon has warned that North Korea may try to abort the South’s ambitions by subversion or even an invasion. Some analysts say that the government may use the spectre of the external threat to cling to power. Indeed, despite Chun’s pledge to relinquish power, no president since South Korea’s independence in 1948 has ever stepped down peacefully.
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