South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan’s brief stopover in Seattle provoked both animosity and good will.
While dozens of protestors vented their anger and opposition to the Chun government in rallies and marches, Washington business leaders and government officials swooned over the economic possibilities that arose from the April 18 to 20 visit—Chun’s only stop in the United States after a 10-day European tour.
South Korean officials insisted that Chun’s visit was “unofficial,” but that didn’t stop Washington Governor Booth Gardner from using the occasion to lay some economic groundwork. State economic officials and about 30 business executives met with their South Korean counterparts in informal get-acquainted sessions throughout the weekend.
Chun’s delegation included his wife, much of his cabinet, chief executives of 40 of South Korea’s largest companies and 50 journalists.
“For whatever reason, the president of Korea chose to stop in the state of Washington,” Gardner said. “We opened up a dialog with the business people who are traveling with him and I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to pursue that.”
According to 1984 figures, Washington already does more than $2.2 billion of two-way trade with South Korea. “The trade relationship with Korea is one of the best we have as a state,” said John Anderson, state director of economic development. And state officials are hoping for more business. To that end, Gardner said he plans to head a trade mission to Seoul sometimes this fall.
At a luncheon given in his honor at the Westin Hotel, Chun also played up the Washington-Korea connection. “The state of Washington has acquired a tremendous potential for development,” he said in the only public appearance of his visit. “I hope we will broaden and deepen Korean-Washington state cooperation in all fields.”
In the spirit of good will and business, Washington dignitaries didn’t dare ask Chun about his political problems back home.
However the subject did come up obliquely.
As the presidential motorcade left Sea-Tac airport for downtown Friday morning, a group of protestors stood on the side of the road, waving signs.
“Oh look, another kind of welcome,” Gardner reported Chun as saying to him.
“How do you deal with this kind of thing in your country?” Gardner asked him.
Chun replied that South Korea is a very young democracy and that he is committed to a peaceful transfer of power in 1988, the year he has promised to resign. He told the governor that, since the end of World War II, political transition in South Korea has been marked by violence and upheaval.
Whether Chun’s transition will be any different is open to question. After six years in power, he is still very much in control of his country. But despite government restrictions on opposition leaders, including Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, dissent has become more visible and vocal.
While Chun was in Seattle, a crowd of 30,000 demonstrators in Taejon, South Korea had to be dispersed by riot police firing tear gas bombs. In Kwangju last month, 80,000 people took to the streets in the largest anti-government demonstration since Chun took power.
Kwangju has been the symbolic center of anti-Chun dissent since 1980, when government forces killed at least 200 protestors, most of them students.
In an attempt to put on the best possible faces before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Chun has been spreading the word, especially to the United States and its allies, that he has moderated his strong-arm tactics. A rally like the one at Kwangju last month would never have taken place a few years ago.
But critics remain skeptical, pointing out that the basic freedoms of speech, press and assembly do not exist. Other abuses—including the jailing and torture of political prisoners—are still widespread, they say.
The opposition also believes Chun, like ex-president Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, is manipulating the electoral process to his own ends. Because they believe Chun will be able to hand-pick his successor, opponents want a constitutional amendment to provide for the direct election of the president.
Deputy Prime Minister Kim Mahn-je was the only high-ranking South Korean to meet with reporters and, not surprisingly, he vigorously defended his president. He said the present system, under which candidates for president do not campaign but are selected by a 5,000 member electoral college, is “the most realistic.” Kim added the Chun has not ruled out a constitutional amendment.
Calling comparisons between the Chun government and the deposed Marcos regime “totally unfounded,” he said that “the president has made it clear we will step down in 1988.”
The presidential visit drew attention to itself by the massive amount of security.
Squads of police, state troopers, American and Korean secret service personnel and even Marines formed one of the tightest security nets ever in Seattle. Bomb-sniffing dogs checked out Westin Hotel reception rooms. The freeway was shut down for Chun’s motorcade to and from the airport. And much to the consternation of the local media, the Korean delegation’s schedule on Friday and Saturday was kept secret until the last possible moment.
Overtime pay for Seattle police was estimated at $55,000.