The political deal between South Korea's President Roh Tae Woo and centrist opposition leader Kim Young Sam, two years ago, was supposed to isolate the remaining opposition. It did not work. In elections for the National Assembly last month, Korean voters reduced the governing Democratic Liberal Party from 215 seats out of 299 to only 149. That is not a majority.
The government was able to pick up two independents for a one-vote margin. But there is a Perils of Pauline aspect about such arrangements. Any one of 151 assemblymen can hold President Roh up for a political favor. And the party is succumbing to factional fighting and backbiting. Kim Young Sam's Faustian bargain with President Roh is coming apart. Mr. Kim is no longer assured of the party's nomination to succeed President Roh in the election later this year. And that nomination is no longer tantamount to election.
The 1990 deal had the politicians reckoning without the voters. The legislative election is the voters' response. Kim Dae Jong, the more leftist opposition party leader isolated in 1990, emerged from these elections stronger. A new conservative party headed by the founder of the Hyundai corporation, Chung Ju Yung, made a serious showing. The stage is being set for a viable presidential contest with three or four realistic contenders. The forms of democracy having been adopted, its substance is creeping in.
Korea's two big issues are management of the economy and improving relations with the Communist regime in North Korea, for the peace and unity of the people and the eventual liberation of North Korea. The legislative election denied President Roh the power to amend the constitution to entrench his own power. It split the opposition between the left and right. It threw older politicians out of office and installed freshmen in one-fourth of the seats.
If South Korea is to undo the ossification of North Korea, it needs to achieve a new democratic vigor in its own institutions. This the voters are trying to provide.