While his fellow students at South Korea’s Pusan Industrial College discussed politics over lunch, Chin Song-il had uglier thoughts on his mind. As violent student protests against President Chun Doohwan’s dictatorial regime continued last week, Chin went to the roof of the college administration building and scattered handfuls of leaflets into the air. Then, after drenching his clothes with kerosene and setting himself on fire, the 22-year-old student jumped five storeys to his death. Horrified by the spectacle, student protesters hurled gasoline bombs and rocks at police who were trying to control the demonstration in the southern city. The next day South Korea’s censored newspapers reported that Chin committed suicide after his father scolded him for getting drunk. But Chin’s leaflets indicated that—like at least three other South Korean protesters who have immolated themselves this year—he died to underscore the issues that have convulsed the country in recent months: the demand for Chun’s resignation and for the withdrawal of 40,000 U.S. troops from South Korea.
At a time when South Korea’s surging economic growth and booming ex-
port trade have begun to rival Japan’s, mounting pressure for democratic reform is posing a growing challenge to Chun’s authoritarian government. Stunned by the dramatic downfall last February of Ferdinand Marcos, then president of the Philippines, Chun, a former army general who took power in a 1980 military coup, has promised to step down in 1988 before the summer Olympics in Seoul. His government, which has a widely acknowledged record of human rights abuse, has also promised limited political reforms. But the promises have not satisfied opposition political leaders—nor the nation’s increasingly militant students, who are far less willing than their parents to accept authoritarian government as necessary for economic growth.
As well, bitter student opposition is increasingly directed toward the U.S. military presence in South Korea, which dates back to the 1950-1953 Korean War, which resulted in the division of the Korean peninsula between Communist North Korea and the U.S.backed Seoul regime. “America,” declared a member of the moderate Korean Student Christian Federation
(KSCF), “wants South Korea as a bastion against communism. So the U.S. assists military dictatorship.”
Student protests began gaining momentum last June and reached a crescendo of violence late last month when 7,000 riot police used tear gas and clubs to end a student occupation at Seoul’s Konkuk University. They arrested more than 1,200 students under the tough National Security Law, which carries a maximum penalty of death. Last week the protests continued at a less violent level as more than 3,000 students across the country staged campus demonstrations, while 50 others continued a hunger strike to protest against U.S. support for Chun’s regime.
So far, the mounting level of protest has persuaded Chun’s government to make some concessions in the direction of political reform—and has led to a political deadlock over what form constitutional change should take. After flatly refusing in the past to consider democratic reforms, Chun proposed last spring that representatives of his ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP) and opposition politicians work together on a special committee to plan a constitutional amendment. Since then, the opposition New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP), under the joint leadership of political rivals Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam, has pressed for a strong president elected by popular vote on the American model to replace the present system, under which the president is chosen by the 5,600 members of an electoral college.
Chun’s government has proposed that after Chun steps down, the office of president should be reduced to figurehead status. Real political power would, along British lines, be vested in the prime minister as head of a cabinet responsible to a democratically elected legislature. Some political observers say that the real purpose of Chun’s proposal is to split the NKDP, which won nearly as many seats as the DJP in last year’s National Assembly election. Certainly Chun’s rival, Kim Dae-jung, a flamboyant politician who has a wide popular following, might have more to gain from a U.S.style presidency. Said a Canadian diplomat: “Kim Young-sam is probably stronger within the party. But Kim Dae-jung has a national charisma that would benefit him in a direct presidential contest.”
Outwardly, the two Kims claimed to be united in their rejection of the government proposal.
Kim Dae-jung insisted that under the government’s plan Chun would be able to manipulate assembly elections and determine the choice of cabinet ministers, prime minister and president.
In South Korea, Kim Dae-jung told Maclean's,
“every government official from prime minister to village clerk is named and controlled by the president. By abusing government power and money, they can easily manipulate the assembly.”
Kim Dae-jung also claimed that the real reason Chun’s government opposes direct presidential elections is that it fears he could win. Still, Kim’s political ambitions have probably been effectively blocked by a suspended 20-year prison sentence he received for allegedly inciting student riots in 1980. He is technically under house arrest and forbidden from taking part in political activity.
In an effort to break the constitutional impasse, Kim Dae-jung said last week that if the government agreed on direct presidential elections, he would
not run for office. Lim Bang Hyun, a senior official of the DJP, noted tersely: “Dae-jung is legally disallowed from running for president. His statement doesn’t mean much.” At the same time, students have criticized both Kims for espousing conservative policies—and for putting personal ambition above political principles.
The stridently anti-American flavor and Marxist content of student pro-
tests has introduced an alarming new element into the South Korean political equation. In part, that is a byproduct of the nation’s stunning economic success. Over the past two decades South Korea has grown from an impoverished nation with a farm-based economy into the world’s 12th-largest exporter, whose automobiles, home computers and video recorders now compete with Japanese products in North American markets.
But student leaders echo Kim Dae-
jung’s complaint that the country’s economic growth has largely benefited the 10 largest conglomerates in the country-known as the chaebol (octopus)— which control more than 60 per cent of the economy. Yet most South Koreans earn only between $240 and $322 a month. As a result, some student leaders favor the Communist North, where, noted a KSCF leader, there is “at least economic equality in education, medical treatment, food, housing and clothes.” The radicals also brand Japan, the main supplier of technology to South Korea, and the United States —the nation’s largest export market— as economic “imperialists.” Anti-Americanism has other roots in South Korea. Citizens blame Washington for supporting a succession of military dictatorships that have ruled South Korea. And opponents of the Chun government have not forgotten that when South Korean soldiers gunned down 191 civilian protesters in 1980 at Kwangju in southwestern Korea, some of the troops involved had been released for what the government called “internal security” duty from the joint U.S.South Korea force that guards the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
With South Korea’s political opposition leaders divided, the role of the students could prove crucial to the outcome of the nation’s growing crisis—as it often has in the past. They resisted Japanese rule over Korea between 1910 and 1945. And in 1960 massive student demonstrations succeeded in toppling strong man Syngman Rhee from the presidency. For his part, Kim Dae-jung has warned Chun not to seize on student radicalism as an excuse for delaying political reform. Noting that South Korea already has about 2,500 political prisoners, Kim declared that rather than “endure such repressive rule, I think 25,000 or even 100,000 Koreans would be willing to go to prison.”
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