South Korea a Challenge for President Chun

Shock at the polls after a dissident's turbulent return

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Only four days after the melee at Seoul's Kimpo International Airport that attended the return from exile of Opposition Politician Kim Dae Jung, 60, South Korea's voters went to the polls last week to elect a new National Assembly. As expected, the ruling Democratic Justice Party (D.J.P.) of President Chun Doo Hwan came out on top, with 35% of the popular vote. But the most remarkable result was the impressive showing of the New Korea Democratic Party (N.K.D.P.), with which Kim is associated. Founded less than a month before the elections, it captured 29% of the vote to emerge as the strongest of three opposition groups.

In a different kind of parliamentary system, the result would have assured the N.K.D.P. a powerful position in the 276-member assembly. The party won 50 seats to the ruling party's 88. But under a complex electoral system introduced by President Chun, who seized power in a military coup in 1979, a disproportionate share of a bloc of 92 nonelective assembly seats goes to the overall winner, with the balance divided among other contending groups. Thus, in the new assembly, the D.J.P. will control 149 seats to the N.K.D.P.'s 67. The real base of power remains in the President's office, but the results should help to make the assembly a more outspoken forum than it has been in the recent past.

! In addition to Kim Dae Jung, the new party's backers include Kim Young Sam, 57, who spent the election campaign under house arrest, and Party President Lee Min Woo, 70, a stem-winding orator who used the rarely spoken words dokcheja (dictator) and kunsa dokje (military dictatorship) in campaign speeches. Most of the N.K.D.P.'s new strength at the polls was drawn not from the ruling party but from another opposition group, the Democratic Korea Party, which gained 81 seats in the 1981 elections but only 35 this time. N.K.D.P. support was particularly strong in Seoul (pop. 9 million), the capital, and the southern port city of Pusan (pop. 2.5 million).

Both Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam were overjoyed at the results. The former declared, "The people's aspirations for freedom and democracy have done it all," and called for unification of the opposition parties. Said Kim Young Sam, who was released from house arrest on Wednesday: "The people are sick and tired of it all. South Korea today has too many causes for despair to be mentally and economically at ease." He also paid special tribute to the "student power" that had helped the N.K.D.P. to its solid showing. A day later, he was again restricted to his home as he was about to visit Kim Dae Jung, who has been under house arrest since he returned to South Korea the week before.

Both the Chun government and the opposition were still smarting from the effects of the angry incident at Kimpo Airport on the day Kim Dae Jung flew back to South Korea. His arrival produced a scuffle that involved about 50 South Korean security agents and a delegation of 22 Americans, among them two Democratic Congressmen, who had accompanied Kim to Seoul to make sure he got home safely. The group included Patricia Derian, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights during the Carter Administration, and Carter's last Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, who strongly opposes Reagan Administration policies in Central America. Both are firmly committed human rights advocates.

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