A member of the Student Council at Hanyang University faces a seven-year prison term for conducting a poll among fellow students on their choice for president of South Korea.
On Saturday, the police charged the student, Kim Chong Su, a senior majoring in English, with violating the Presidential Election Law, a pillar of the authoritarian government set up by President Chun Doo Hwan after he seized power in 1980 coup. The law bans opinion polls or straw votes on presidential preference. Under it, Kim, 22, could have been sent to prison for up to three years.
However, prosecutors later decided to charge Kim with violating a law regulating assemblies and demonstrations, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years.
They charged that Kim, in connection with his poll, pasted paper American flags on a campus roadway so that students could either write on them or tread on them on their way to classes. Anti-American sentiment is widespread among students, who believe that the United States has supported Chun's authoritarian government.
On Monday, lawyers' groups, opposition politicians and South Korea's mass media took up the case. All insisted that, whatever the charge, the prosecutors are trying to punish Kim for conducting a straw vote.
They insisted that such polls should be permitted "as part of the social trend toward democratization" that developed after Roh Tae Woo, Chun's handpicked nominee for president, proposed sweeping reforms June 29 to end protests that had swept the country.
The Hanyang University student council said it will support Kim by conducting a poll covering all 20,000 students. Kim had handed out ballots to 1,360 students, at random, listing Roh and four opposition candidates.
In 1980, when the ban on polls was written into the law, government officials said it was needed to prevent polls from influencing voter behavior. But critics charged that the real intent was to hide Chun's lack of support.
Korean newspapers, despite the freedom that they have acquired since Roh's promise of reforms, have not published the results of Kim's poll, but the student council gave the results to The Times.
The winner was Kim Dae Jung, the opposition candidate in the last direct presidential election 16 years ago. He received 631 votes, or 46% of the poll's total. Roh finished last with 120 votes. Kim Young Sam, president of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party, got 483 votes. Former prime minister Kim Jong Pil got 126 votes.