South Korea’s student radicals say that they have an obligation to fight the Establishment, the very group that many of them will join after they graduate. Their weapons are rocks and fire bombs, and most South Koreans not only tolerate their tactics but openly admire them. Members of the older generations maintain that students are the only ones able to challenge the authoritarian government because they have no families to support and no jobs to protect. Students led the 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule, toppled President Syngman Rhee in 1960 and forced President Chun Doo-hwan to call a democratic election before he stepped down in 1988. The man who won that election, President Roh Tae-woo, predicted that student protests “will eventually disappear in a huge melting furnace of democratic reforms.” But, last week, Roh himself was in danger of being burned by the flames of another student rebellion, the worst violence
since the riots that led to Chun’s ouster.
More than 90,000 students took to the streets on May 9, battling riot police in 17 cities and setting fire to police stations and party offices. The students were protesting the inaugural convention of the new Democratic Liberal Party, formed last February, when the government merged with two opposition parties. They claim that Roh is trying to gain a monopoly on power and that he has no intention of honoring his pledge to step down in 1993. And, as usually happens in South Korea, the riots took on strongly anti-American overtones: the radicals set fire to the U.S. Information Service (USIS) headquarters in Seoul and demanded the withdrawal of an estimated 43,000 U.S. troops. The government immediately deployed thousands of security forces in an effort to bring the violence under control.
Few of the student radicals are old enough to remember the 1950-1953 Korean War, when American forces helped to repel an invasion by
Communist North Koreans and their Chinese allies. The students contend that the U.S. military presence prevents reunification of the Korean peninsula and makes Seoul a puppet of Washington. Richard Solomon, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who was visiting Seoul and saw the attack on the four-storey USIS building, described the action as “mindless violence.” But he said he was pleased with the government’s swift response. U.S. Ambassador Don-, aid Gregg, whose home was fire-bombed by students last October, said damage to the USIS offices was far more severe. “I was really shocked by what I saw,” he said, adding that students stoned five Korean employees who took refuge on the roof of the burning budding.
The extent of the violence led Justice Minister Yi Jong-nam to warn that he would no longer extend leniency. “Until now, we’ve tried to refrain from using the police force on campuses,” said Yi, in a nationwide television address. “But students throwing fire bombs are fanning social chaos.” According to the police, on one day alone the students threw 52,000 fire bombs while the police fired 15,720 tear-gas canisters; 1,864 rioters were detained and 407 people were injured, 350 of them policemen and the rest demonstrators. Despite a massive deployment of security forces, smaller but still violent confrontations continued until week’s end. And a student group calling itself the Citizens’ Coalition to Bring Down Roh Tae-woo promised daily protests until the president resigns.
Roh, South Korea’s first democratically elected president in nearly 30 years, had expressed confidence that he would be spared such problems when he took power in February, 1988. Although he is a former general and Chun’s handpicked successor, closely associated with the authoritarian excesses of the previous regime, the new president had won the
December, 1987, elections without resorting to the government’s traditional tactic of jailing its opponents. Roh took 36 per cent of the vote, enough to beat a fractured opposition led by the three Kims—the left-leaning Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil. And he reduced the student protests by promising further democratization and a resumption of reunification talks with North Korea, which
had lapsed during Chun’s tenure.
Roh was so confident that he said he would hold a referendum on his performance after one year in office. But he cracked down on student radicals when they tried to stage a march to the North Korean border in June, 1988. The referendum, due in April, 1989, was indefinitely postponed. And last September, he outraged the followers of Kim Dae-jung, the most charismatic of the three opposition leaders, by indicting him on charges of violating national security laws. The other two Kims then merged their parties with that of the government. The February merger gave the mammoth Democratic Liber-
al Party a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, enabling the government to push through constitutional changes.
The radicals are a small minority, roughly five per cent of South Korea’s one million students. But their renewed unrest may signal a long, hot summer for their government and its American guardians.
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