A South Korean university campus is a shifting scene of strolling students, soccer kick-arounds, political rallies and the lingering, acrid smell of tear gas. Since student demonstrators brought down the government of Syngman Rhee in 1960, political activism has been both tradition and obligation here, a rite of passage.
"You can't separate those two--national issues and student life," said a woman student at Seoul's Yonsei University.
A Restive Element
At Yonsei, Korea and Seoul National universities and more than 100 other campuses around the country, South Korea's million-plus college students are the most restive element on the political stage. The death of a Seoul National student under police torture galvanized anti-government demonstrators earlier this year, and President Chun Doo Hwan's subsequent cancellation of political talks on constitutional revision has heightened the protests.
Last week, anti-government students took their protests to the streets of Seoul, forming the bulwark of violent opposition demonstrations when the ruling Democratic Justice Party nominated Roh Tae Woo as its presidential candidate. Roh, who faces no rival, was thus effectively designated South Korea's next president.
Yonsei students were particularly agitated by the critical injury to a classmate in a campus rally Tuesday. He was hit in the head by a police tear-gas grenade and was in a coma.
Students somehow infiltrated downtown areas of the capital despite heavy police cordons. They swarmed the streets, sometimes snaking four abreast, arms around each others' shoulders and chanting anti-government slogans. It was a dangerous confrontation, far sharper than most university rallies. The demonstrators hurled rocks and firebombs, and the police answered with tear gas and clubs.
This spring, the focus of the demonstrations has been government repression and the opposition's demand for constitutional change, and the crowds have been larger than before. But with some exceptions, like the rioting of last week, the protests have been contained within the campus gates. The situation in Seoul so far bears little resemblance to Paris or Berkeley in the 1960s, despite the images of tear gas and truncheons.
Interviews with students on the hillside Yonsei campus revealed the dynamics of the university protest movement. They insisted on anonymity, a sign of their fear of police retribution.
"They (the police) sometimes know about a demonstration before we do," said one, explaining the widespread assumption among students that undercover police and informers are among them.
Another, conceding that she had no proof but speaking nonetheless with certainty, added: "There's supposed to be this big file. Anything you do, they put a mark by your name. Once you are elected (to a student organization) you go on the list. . . . You have to think of your family. It could affect them. The father, his promotion. . . ."
In May, Assistant Secretary of State Gaston J. Sigur declared at a House hearing in Washington that many of the more than 700 South Korean university professors who had signed statements calling for democratic reforms "were subjected to various pressures and punishments, including the denial of research funds, withholding of promotions and pressure to resign from administrative positions."
Sigur also said that, according to reliable critics, investigations of students and their organizations under the National Security Law were often "misused to suppress mere dissent."
With the exception of student council leaders, who run for office on a platform of national political issues, the organizers of campus protests in Seoul hide their identities, the Yonsei collegians agreed.
"It's all very hazy at the top," an upperclassman said. "Even we don't know."
'Tomatoes' and 'Apples'
"The core element is dogmatic, even quasi-revolutionary. . . . It would be very hard to placate them," a Western diplomat observed. The radicals, the diplomat said, are categorized by government agents as "tomatoes" and "apples": "The tomatoes are red throughout and the apples red only on the surface."
Anti-Americanism was the predominant theme of campus rallies in 1986. In the view of student radicals, a university professor pointed out, "the Republic of Korea itself, which was founded with American support, does not have legitimacy."
In interviews, government officials freely bandy the word communist and accuse student radicals of drawing inspiration from the propaganda radio of Communist North Korea. Merely listening to the broadcasts is a criminal offense here. But the government has not made a convincing case that student protests are directed by North Korean agents.
"The student problem is manageable," the Western diplomat insisted. "But it would require the government to distinguish between activity and thought, to punish only the activity and tolerate a much greater degree of dissent than it is willing to tolerate now."
Majority Oppose Chun
The vast majority of students oppose the Chun regime, both educators and students say, although the university professor added: "Die-hard radicals who reject parliamentary democracy represent a very small minority, probably not more than one-tenth of 1%."
Government officials, anxious to exaggerate the threat to justify repression of dissent, estimate the hard core at 10 times that, or about 10,000.
Political stability must be maintained in the face of a continuing threat from North Korea, which gains from campus protests, the government insists.
A female student at Yonsei said that many students view the North and South Korean people as suffering the same fate: "They're under a dictatorship; we're under a dictatorship."
To hard-core campus radicals, "Even the days of Kim Dae Jung are over," the professor said. Kim, South Korea's longtime opposition leader, is considered a radical himself by the government and is under house arrest.
Activists Join Opposition
More often now than in the past, activists are going into the underground opposition after graduation, writing anti-government tracts, infiltrating labor organizations and even the business community, according to students and educators.
Political issues are raised in two different extracurricular forums on campus:
- The hakhoe , or study meetings, discussions led by senior students in each college department.
- Campus rallies, usually led by the student council president. At Yonsei, more than 2,000 students took part in a rally last month.
After some rallies, about a fourth of the participants head for the university gates, where helmeted police wait with standing orders to confine the protests to the campus. Busloads of police arrive each day with the opening of classes and remain until the campus clears in the afternoon.
"The main gate is a zone, the front," a student explained of the confrontations that happen about once or twice a week. As they press to the gates, the demonstrators shout slogans and throw rocks and occasionally gasoline bombs at the police, who respond with tear gas, shields and clubs. Many students wear surgical masks and daub toothpaste on their upper lips and cheekbones to lessen the effects of the gas on nostrils and eyes. But it is an unequal struggle.
Police Carry No Guns
The police carry no firearms but are highly skilled at controlling mobs.
Despite the physical danger to both sides, the demonstrations at the gates have become almost a mock battle with a certain ending. Student participants are carted away for questioning and, usually, overnight detention at least.
Arrests continue to mount. Human rights advocates say that more than 2,000 political prisoners, most of them students, are now in jail, compared to 350 a year after Chun seized power in a May, 1980, coup. Under the late President Park Chung Hee, their numbers seldom exceeded 500.
The students said that carrying the struggle to the streets of downtown Seoul, as they did last week, is difficult.
"They block the subway exits and check for IDs," one noted. "If you have a student ID, you have two choices: Either you go home or you go on the (police) bus."
Although none would admit to taking part in the demonstrations, a group of the Yonsei students interviewed presented a range of attitudes on campus activism. All opposed the government but differed in tone on student protests--not on ideals but on methods.
Bitter at Police Treatment
One was a young man who spoke bitterly about police treatment.
"When you just walk on the streets they ask for your identification," he said. "If you have any little kind of anti-government material on you, they take you to the chicken coop (police buses with wire windows)."
There, he insisted, the rough stuff begins: "A kick is something gentlemanly."
A woman student, articulate on national issues, decried a recent on-campus police raid that broke up a student hunger strike. Forty protesters were arrested, she said, and nine are still in jail.
"If we aren't allowed to fast of our own free will," she complained, "then what's free in this country?"
Another young woman declared softly with emotion: "Sometimes I feel very cowardly. There are some very brave students . . . and I just sit here, studying."
The students seemed pessimistic about the prospects.
"There are times you don't know which rumor to believe," said the woman who had been angered by the on-campus raid. "You can't believe the press."
National Ethics Course
She rated opposition politicians as "much better" than the ruling Democratic Justice Party, but added ruefully that the opposition "has not shown consistent leadership." Politicians on both sides, the students said, have exploited the campus movement. Campus organizations identified with either camp are forbidden. There is no South Korean equivalent of the Young Democrats or Young Republicans, although a required course in national ethics, the students said, pushes the government's strong anti-Communist line.
The professor, assessing the government curriculum, called the ethics class "backward in fashion and shallow and dogmatic in content. Students have no idea why communism is bad."
And, he added, the government's attempt to stifle what it calls subversive literature is not working: "With the advent of the Xerox machine, it's a losing game."
Nevertheless, police continue to stop students at campus gates and on downtown streets, forcing them to turn out their pockets and open their purses in the hunt for radical material. Rally rhetoric and activist literature is described as vaguely Marxist, at least in terms of class struggle, and finds widespread acceptance on campus, even among students who do not join the confrontation at the gates.
Dismiss Economic Gains
Economic progress, which has pulled the nation up from abject poverty to the brink of affluence under South Korea's two authoritarian leaders--Park and Chun--is dismissed as an element of oppression.
"It is based on the sacrifices of laborers and farmers," one of the Yonsei students said.
But the uncommitted students also reflect on the sacrifices of their families in the early years of the South Korean republic, and the ruinous 1950-53 war with North Korea. Many of these families are now members of the country's growing middle class, sending their children to colleges such as Yonsei, where tuition and books for a school year can cost more than $1,700 in a country with a per-capita annual income of $2,300.
The soft-spoken woman student paraphrased a conversation at home: "Dad, you're bourgeois," the daughter said.
"Yes, but you didn't live through the 1950s," was the reply.