During the campaign for South Korea’s presidential elections, former army general Roh Tae-woo projected the soothing image of a father figure. Associates said that he drank one beer a day and liked the sentimental Latin love ballad Besame Mucho (Kiss Me A Lot). But Roh’s political opponents reminded voters that in 1979 he used troops to support a coup that brought the unpopular President Chun Doohwan to power. They also stressed the fact that in the following year Roh led forces that brutally crushed an insurrection in the southwestern city of Kwangju, killing 2,000 people, according to the opposition. Despite that record, when South Koreans went to the polls last week, Roh emerged as the winner—and Chun’s successor —by a two-million-vote margin. Still, not all Koreans were prepared to forget Roh’s past. Protesters immediately staged demonstrations and charged that Roh had rigged the election. In Seoul on Dec. 18, 4,000 riot police fought students in a two-hour battle that left 36 injured. Then they rounded up more than 1,000 protesters.
The first postelection demonstrations erupted in Kwangju, where about 2,000 demonstrators battled police with fire bombs and rocks. With opposition politicians claiming that Roh had won through widespread vote-buying and assaults on opposition poll-watchers, the trouble soon spread to four other cities. The worst violence occurred in Seoul’s southern Kuro district, where students seized a voting centre to guard four ballot boxes that they claimed were stuffed with forged voting slips. At dawn last Friday 4,000 police launched a military-style assault on the centre, bombarding the students with tear gas. In a two-hour siege, the police recovered the ballot boxes—virtually gutting the building in the process. Analysts said that if the unrest continued, Roh might not hon-
or his campaign undertaking of greater liberalization, threatening South Korea’s chances of staging peaceful Summer Olympic Games next September.
Despite the opposition claims, Western journalists and other observers reported seeing only isolated voting irregularities. “We did not see evidence of any large-scale abuse,” said Steven Schneebaum of the Washington, D.C.-based International Human Rights Law Group, which sent unofficial election monitors. The U.S. state department confirmed that assessment. Still, in Seoul, 38-year-old Huh Ki-su said that he had taken an electoral bribe from the ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP). Then, in apparent remorse, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire, suffering third-degree burns.
The evidence largely indicated that the 55-year-old Roh, who was groomed by Chun to succeed him, owed his victory primarily to the badly divided opposition. With the
counting of the 23 million votes completed, Roh led with 35.9 per cent, followed by the centrist Kim Youngsam with 27.5 per cent and the more radical Kim Dae-jung with 26.5 per cent. Had either of the Kims decided against running, those results indicated that Roh would likely have lost the election by a sizable margin. “It was not that the opposition votes were not there,” said Thomas Bleha, a former U.S. diplomat who served in South Korea. “Probably if they had had a unified candidate, they would have won.”
Bitter in defeat after eight years of fighting Chun, the main opposition leaders refused to accept the outcome. “I declare the elections null and void,” said Kim Young-sam, leader of the middle-of-the-road Reunification Democratic Party, who called for a protest campaign to overturn the results. For his part, Kim Daejung, the charismatic political renegade who has suggested the possibility of removing U.S. troops from South Korea, called the election “an all-out fraud.”
Roh’s victory amounted to a surpris-
ing feat of survival for a regime that in recent months has faced growing demands for a more democratic government. Last summer, strikes at about 3,000 companies threatened to stall South Korea’s economic boom. In June protests erupted when Chun announced that Roh had been chosen as the ruling party’s candidate to succeed him. Three weeks of street rioting subsided only when Roh—urged on by moderates within the DJP and by Chun—called for direct elections, the first since 1971.
It was a political reversal that stunned most South Koreans. It also turned out to be a wise strategy because Roh’s main opponents proved unable to agree on a unified campaign. Kim Dae-jung, 62, who had spent five years in jail after being kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel room by South Korean security police in 1973, insisted that he be the main opposition candidate. Kim Youngsam, 60, claimed that his persistent opposition ,to Chun’s regime had helped to open the way for democratic elections, and that he deserved the honor.
Last week, in a postelection victory speech, Roh called on South Koreans to help in “shaping a new era of democratic reconciliation” to ensure the success of the Summer Olympics in Seoul. In a letter to Roh, President Ronald Reagan pledged his support in the “formidable” tasks ahead. At the same time, Roh will be under pressure to honor election pledges, including higher wages and the prosecution of corrupt government officials—a step that could involve members of Chun’s family.
Still, with the threat of continued violence in the air, Chun said that the lenience permitted during the campaign was over and that the administration would deal sternly with “illegal and disorderly acts.” And that attitude will likely be sustained when Roh begins his five-year term as president in February: the president-elect is expected to continue most of Chun’s authoritarian practices.
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