By the tens of thousands they rampaged through the streets of Seoul, throwing rocks and gasoline bombs at waves of helmeted riot police. The police responded with barrages of peppery tear gas. But at one point near the imposing Bank of Korea, the nation’s central bank, the otherwise unarmed police ran low on gas, and the rioters—mostly students— seized their helmets and shields and burned them. The street fighting, which raged throughout last week, flared not only in Seoul but in key provincial cities around South Korea. And on Friday, Prime Minister Lee Hankey warned on television that if the protests continued the government might be forced “to make an extraordinary decision” —an apparent reference to the imposition of martial law. That did not help. Hours later in Taejon, a city south of Seoul, demonstrators drove a commandeered bus into a group of policemen, killing one.
The protests, backing demands for constitutional reform, may finally be having an impact on the authoritarian government of President Chun Doohwan. On April 13 Chun suspended discussions with the opposition Reunification Democratic Party (RDP) about constitutional changes that would allow direct election of presidents. Then, on June 10 Chun named former army general Roh Tae-woo to succeed him next February after an electoral college poll, which critics allege would be weighted in favor of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. Last week, after
10 days of rioting, Roh insisted that the April 13 decision “cannot be revoked,” but he added that “we are ready to reflect the people’s aspirations for revision of the constitution.”
He was under increasing international pressure to do just that, particularly with Seoul’s Summer Olympic Games scheduled for September, 1988. Last week President Ronald Reagan sent a letter to Chun urging him to take steps toward full democracy.
The depth of South Korea’s discontent is evident not just among the radical students but also among the normally tranquil middle class. Last week office workers and shopkeepers joined in the demonstrations to express their frustration over a political system that has bestowed economic blessings but little freedom. In the past, said export manager Kim Kyu-rhee during one Seoul protest, “I was afraid to talk.” He added, “Now, you tell the world: Chun is no good.”
It remains unclear whether government hints of conciliation will defuse such attitudes. Last week RDP chairman Kim Young-sam called on students to refrain from violence. But observers say that the students may not react to the calls of the moderates. One signal will emerge this week as students leave their campuses for summer vacation. But it will clearly take far more than the closing of school to end South Korea’s dangerous days of rage.
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