Admit ‘Shameful Acts,’ Urge Political Neutrality : 30 S. Korean Police Apologize to People
Saying “we had to struggle to keep our pride” while suppressing anti-government demonstrations, a group of young officers has shaken South Korea’s police establishment with a demand for political neutrality.
Their statement, recently given to local newspapers, apologized to the Korean people for “shameful” acts during the demonstrations last year. One of the police officers told the newspaper Dong-A Ilbo that “we were angered at having to face the hatred of the people.”
The demonstrations, led by students and dissidents, forced President Chun Doo Hwan to agree to December’s presidential election. Beatings by some policemen and heavy use of tear gas characterized the demonstrations.
“Police neutrality is a prerequisite for the realization of true democracy,” the policemen’s statement said. It was signed by 30 junior officers, who said they represent 333 graduates and 108 cadets of the National Police College, which produces the officers of the national police.
Kwon Pok Kyung, director general of the 120,000-member National Police, described the statement as deplorable. He said his headquarters will prevent any more such statements.
However, the young officers, shielded from reporters since issuing their statement, insisted that political neutrality should not be an in-house police matter.
“It is one of the most serious problems Korean people must solve,” their statement said.
The officers made no specific suggestions on how to guarantee neutrality of the force. But they said neutrality is “a precondition if the police are to carry out their inherent duty of keeping public security and social order.”
“We had to confront the people on the forefront,” the statement said, “and as young men of the country, we had to struggle to keep our pride.”
The junior officers charged that the police “drew conclusions that were contrary to the people’s will because of the intervention of outside forces.”
Rocked by Probe
The police hierarchy had already been rocked last month by the arrest of former Director General Kang Min Chang in a widening investigation into the cover-up of the torture death of a student at the hands of police a year ago.
Regular national policemen are draftees. About half of them are assigned to riot police units that are deployed primarily to put down student demonstrations. However, the officers, those who go to the police college, are volunteers who have passed tough examinations.
The ruling Democratic Justice Party, moving to promote or co-opt all calls for democratization in the wake of its December election victory, called the statement a “positive sign.” Party Secretary General Shim Myung Bo said policemen have been discredited for overstepping their authority.
Shim’s quick embrace of the statement reflected the efforts of President-elect Roh Tae Woo and his advisers to distance themselves from the authoritarian style of Chun’s presidency and the earlier Park Chung Hee regime.
Shim was named to the party post 11 days ago, replacing Chung Suk Mo, a three-term national assemblyman with a long police career. Shim, a key player in Roh’s presidential campaign, is a former assemblyman and journalist.
Although there has been no open dispute between Roh and Chun, who personally selected the incoming president as the ruling party’s nominee, Roh’s campaign avoided drawing any connections between the two longtime friends and portrayed Roh as an “ordinary man” who endorsed popular calls for democratization.
The difference in style was obvious last week. Roh, in meeting with public and private sector leaders studying programs for national reconciliation, reportedly chided some advisers for being “too stiff.” He joined them in round-table discussions and invited them to smoke if they wished.
In contrast, when Chun met foreign reporters at a luncheon last Friday, his spokesman decreed that smoking would be forbidden. When Chun entered, he sat in a gilded chair, more elaborate than others at the head table, and several times during the meal lit up a cigarette.