WORLD

The battle of Seoul

BOB LEVIN July 6 1987
WORLD

The battle of Seoul

BOB LEVIN July 6 1987

The battle of Seoul

WORLD

Once again the streets of Seoul reverberated with the deafening blare of horns and the crack of tear-gas canisters. After five days of relative calm—during which President Chun Doo-hwan held inconclusive talks with opposition leader Kim Young-sam on the crucial issue of constitutional reform—South Koreans in the tens of thousands reignited their protests on June 26. Beginning at about 6 p.m., students—joined by middle-class office workers and shoppers —massed in downtown Seoul, waving Korean flags and chanting “Down with dictatorship.” Riot police fired tear gas and charged into the crowds, and students responded by flinging rocks and fire bombs until late into the night. Scores of people were injured and hundreds arrested. “I think this time democracy can really be achieved,” one Korea University student shouted as a pitched battle raged around him. Several blocks away, a middle-aged spectator declared, “This is a turning point, this is like I960”—a reference to the student uprising that forced the

resignation of then-president Syngman Rhee.

The massive march in Seoul last week, mirrored in smaller demonstrations in cities around the country, was one of the largest antigovernment rallies since the street fighting broke out two weeks ago. And while there was no indication that Chun’s government was in any immediate danger of toppling, the president clearly faced a deepening crisis—one largely of his own making. On April 13, Chun suspended talks on constitutional reforms that would allow direct election of presidents instead of the current electoral college system, which critics contend is skewed to favor the ruling Democratic Justice Party. Then, on June 10, he named former schoolmate Roh Tae-woo (page 18) as his successor in the electoral college vote in February—and touched off the explosion of protest.

The government was determined to undermine the demonstrations on Friday. In the preceding days national police chief Kwon Bok-kyung called the planned protests “subversive” and sent

his men to round up more than 1,800 people across the country. Hundreds of police surrounded the suburban Seoul home of opposition leader Kim Daejung, putting him back under temporary house arrest just 31 hours after the government had finally ended his previous 78-day period of confinement at home. On the day of the march, police also seized the other key opposition figure, Reunification Democratic Party (RDP) leader Kim Young-sam, as he and aides walked to a city hall rally where he was scheduled to speak. After a brief scuffle, Kim was pushed into a police van and taken on a long circuitous drive, then released at his home.

In his meeting with Chun two days earlier, Kim Young-sam struck a decidedly defiant note. Chun’s invitation to visit the Blue House, the heavily guarded presidential residence which Kim had not been allowed to enter for six years, was a clear attempt to halt the street violence. Determined to appear Chun’s equal, Kim refused at the gate to don a visitor’s identification tag. “Everybody in Korea and many people around the world know me,”

said Kim—and strode past. The three-hour session with Chun, which included a lunch of thick Korean soup, was polite but frosty. Chun offered to resume discussions on constitutional reform, but Kim rejected that proposal. He said that he wanted a commitment not only to talks but to changes. And he refused the president’s appeal to leave the debate to the National Assembly, which is dominated by Chun’s supporters. “You are responsible for state affairs,” said Kim. “You must decide if we have constitutional reform.”

A spokesman for Chun’s party called the meeting “the beginning of a grand compromise.” But a Kim spokesman dubbed it a “failure” and said that the opposition would continue the struggle “to crush the scheme of the current regime to perpetuate its hold on power.” The meeting did produce concrete results, however. Kim secured the release of some 200 people arrested during recent rioting, as well as of Kim Dae-jung —short-lived though that turned out to be. At 63, Kim Daejung remains the government’s bitterest enemy. Over a tumultuous political career, he nearly became president in the country’s last free election in 1971. In 1980 he was sentenced to death for allegedly masterminding an antiChun revolt in the city of Kwangju; later, under international pressure, his sentence was commuted to life, reduced to 20 years and finally suspended. In 1982, Kim went into exile in the United States. Since his return in early 1985, he has been placed under house arrest 55 times.

After his release last Wednesday, Kim was in a jubilant—and combative-mood as he talked with supporters on his tiny lawn. Chun had hinted that Kim, still under a suspended prison term, might have his

civil rights restored if he steered clear of politics, but Kim scoffed at that offer. “I have no reason to make any repentance to this government,” he said. “The man who should be repentant is Chun Doo-hwan. They have persecuted me for so long.” He called Chun’s meeting with Kim Young-sam “a cosmetic gesture” and compared South Korea’s recent street demonstrations to those that preceded Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos’s downfall last year. While praising the exercise of “people’s power,” Kim claimed that he did not want to see Chun’s “unfortunate expulsion” before February. But he added ominously, “If he maintains his present attitude, we don’t know what situation might occur.”

One clear parallel to the Philippines uprising is the intense interest of the United States. Washington maintains a military presence in both countries— U.S. troop strength in South Korea now numbers 40,000—and last week Washington sent an emissary to Seoul. Over three hectic days Gaston Sigur, an assistant secretary of state, met with Chun, Roh, Roman Catholic leader Stephen Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan and opposition leaders. Kim Dae-jung said that, from his one-hour meeting with Sigur, it appeared that the “American government has started moving in the right direction”—away from its previous tacit support of

Chun’s hard-line policies. While Sigur clearly failed to persuade Chun to make any substantial move toward greater democracy, Chun reportedly reassured him that he would not impose martial law. “Our position is crystal-clear,” Sigur said before leaving from Seoul’s Kimpo airport. “Any use of martial law in the current situation is unwarranted.”

Sigur also undoubtedly took home a sense of South Korea’s growing strain of anti-American sentiment. As 10,000 students rallied at Seoul’s Yonsei University early last week, some draped an effigy of Chun with a paper American flag, doused it with kerosene and set it aflame. “We don’t want Americans in hotel rooms dictating our political future,” said one student, referring to Sigur. The protesters seemed increasingly militant. “Before, we went for the peaceful approach,” said one 20-year-old student of business administration. “We sat down in front of combat police or handed them flowers—always peaceful, even if they threw tear gas at us. Now we’ve decided we must hit back. Whatever we do we get hurt anyway.”

There was ample evidence of that: on the wall of Yonsei’s student union building hung a huge picture of student Lee Han-yol being carried by a colleague from a demonstration. Lee was hit in the head by a tear-gas canister fired by riot police and has been on a life-support system for three weeks. Students say that Lee is probably brain-dead, kept alive by a government fearful of adding another martyr to the cause. The student who was pictured carrying Lee was taken to the same hospital after being seriously injured in a later protest.

As the country braced for the rally on Friday, Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan was the last leader to meet with Chun. The cardinal—whose moral authority far exceeds the numerical strength of his flock, which comprises only 10 per cent of the mainly Buddhist population-offered little comfort to the embattled president. “I believe you should accept a direct presidential system as the best choice,” he said bluntly. Chun did not respond directly. But he denied the widely held belief that he would continue to run the country from behind the scenes after Roh became president. “To be honest,” said Chun, “I want to sleep to my heart’s content after I have retired.” For the moment, however, Chun will get little time to rest. With the world at large watching—and Seoul’s Summer Olympic Games looming in just 15 months—he faces a spreading fire of rebellion that shows no signs of burning out.

BOB LEVIN

PETER McGILL