Angry students Sunday trampled and burned flowers sent as a condolence offering by ruling party Chairman Roh Tae Woo and clashed with police near the university hospital where a student had just died of injuries received last month at the outset of South Korea’s current political crisis.
The family of Lee Han Yol, 21, who never regained consciousness after being struck on the head June 9 by a police tear-gas canister during a demonstration on the campus of Yonsei University, demanded that authorities permit a public funeral for Lee and his burial in the National Cemetery. The nation’s war dead are honored there.
Meanwhile, the government today released 177 people accused of political crimes. The release of most political prisoners was part of a package of reforms promised last week by Roh and later approved by South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan.
Lee’s death Sunday, after 27 days on a life-support system, spurred police fears that his funeral could be another occasion for an outpouring of anger against Chun’s military-backed rule. Chun’s promises to transform South Korea into a full-fledged democracy have not yet placated a suspicious opposition.
Seoul Police Chief Kwon Bok Kyong issued an unusual statement expressing condolences when Lee’s death was announced, an action that underscored official fears. Usually, police have condemned as “impure elements” all those who take part, as Lee had done, in protest demonstrations.
“The police express deep condolences to the bereaved family and regret the incident,” Kwon said. “The police will do their utmost to avoid repetition of such an incident.”
He added that “it is most important for the people to exercise restraint.”
Last month, as Lee lay in a coma at Yonsei University hospital, fellow students spread leaflets through the streets featuring a grim photograph of the injured man slumped in the arms of a masked colleague.
“Bring back Lee Han Yol!” became a rallying cry for the 18 days of June that shook President Chun’s authoritarian government to its roots.
After Lee’s death Sunday, more than 4,000 riot police were deployed around the main gate of the Yonsei campus, site of the university’s hospital.
Students, saying they feared police would try to take away Lee’s body, clashed with the police who fired pepper gas, a virulent form of tear gas, to disperse them.
The clashes continued until police withdrew to a distance of about half a mile from the campus, but the sharp, biting fumes of pepper gas remained in the area into the night. Police detained about 20 students who were keeping vigil around the hospital.
At noon today, the campus was quiet, although students had scheduled a rally later this afternoon. Hundreds of students stood in line to offer incense at an altar surrounded by wreaths set up in the Student Union building, the front of which was draped with a huge black shroud.
A Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, predicted today that Lee’s death would cause little trouble, except on the Yonsei campus, in the short run.
But in the longer run, “the potential for unrest is there if the Democratic Justice Party doesn’t carry out its promises. By fall, if there is no progress, the students will be out again,” he said.
The pullback by police on Sunday came only after complaints from Lee’s parents and opposition leaders.
“The police should move out,” the victim’s father, Lee Byung Sup, told reporters at the scene. “If they do not, it means the president’s proposal for political freedoms are all a fake.”
Lee’s mother, Pae Yo Sim, screamed, “The government must apologize!”
Demands National Cemetery
The elder Lee demanded that his son be buried in the National Cemetery after five days of mourning, including a service in Kwangju, the victim’s hometown and the site of a 1980 insurrection that was crushed by troops sent to quell protests that had begun only as demonstrations.
By official count, 194 people were killed in the “Kwangju insurrection,” as it came to be known in the public mind, and the incident has cast a shadow over Chun’s regime ever since.
The Kwangju protest began after Chun seized power in a coup and jailed all of the nation’s major political leaders.
While Kwangju, a provincial capital in the southwestern part of the country, was reported quiet Sunday, about 1,000 people clashed with police there Saturday night--the first significant violence since Chun promised Wednesday to transform South Korea into a democracy. The Yonhap News Agency reported that 23 people were detained.
Lee was the second fatality among the demonstrators, whose June protests gained such widespread support among the middle class that Chairman Roh of the Democratic Justice Party yielded to all of the opposition’s demands for democratic reforms and a release of political prisoners in a stunning public announcement last Monday. Two days later, Chun nodded his assent to the sweeping program of reforms.
One Death in Pusan
Earlier, Lee Tae Chun, a 28-year-old employee of a rubber company in Pusan, died while demonstrating there.
One policeman was killed during the June protests.
In a move that astonished the public and other government leaders at the time, Roh of the ruling party paid a visit to Yonsei University hospital last Monday to express condolences to Lee Han Yol’s parents about their son. It was not until that moment that anyone on the government’s side had acknowledged official responsibility for Lee’s condition.
After the young man’s death Sunday, Roh’s party issued a statement saying, “We pray Lee’s yearnings will take full bloom in our era,” and Roh sent a floral wreath to the hospital. But students shredded, stamped and burned the flowers.
The nation’s two top opposition leaders--Kim Young Sam, the president of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party, and his ally, Kim Dae Jung--visited the hospital Sunday.
‘Death a Burning Torch’
“What makes me most sad is that Lee passed away without knowing the great national victory we have won,” said Kim Dae Jung. “His death will become a burning torch lighting the way for the path of democracy in this country.”
Kim Young Sam said he would refuse to hold talks with officials of the ruling party and order his own party to halt its drafting of proposals for a new constitution until after Lee’s funeral and burial.
Lee was struck and critically injured June 9 when police put down a demonstration inside the campus of Yonsei University, a 20,000-student institution founded by an American Methodist missionary. The protests moved off campus and into the streets the next day, after the Democratic Justice Party anointed Roh, Chun’s personal choice, as its candidate in what was to have been an indirect election to pick a successor to Chun when he steps down next February.