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COLUMN ONE : Sparing the Rod in S. Korea : Once widely accepted in the military, prisons and schools, the use of violent punishment faces rising challenges. Institutions that once ruled unchecked are heeding the groundswell of protest.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hong Doo Seung and Kim Keun Tae were both intimate participants in South Korea’s long legacy of institutional violence. Hong freely admits he beat enlisted men with rifle butts and canes when he was an officer in the all-powerful South Korean military, which ruled the nation until the democratic election of 1987.

Kim, a labor activist, suffered such excruciating electric shocks that his throat swelled from his screams as he reached the brink of death under police torture in 1985.

Today, however, both victim and perpetrator agree that South Korea’s new civilian government, inaugurated last year by former dissident Kim Young Sam, is producing a striking reform: a significant reduction in violence as a means of social control.

Once omnipresent among the military and police, in the legal system, the schools and at home, beatings and other physical forms of coercion are being firmly rejected by a growing number of South Koreans. In a measure of the strides made by this newly democratic nation, everyone from soldiers to parents is speaking out against the use of force--and the protests are being heeded by the institutions that once ruled unchecked.

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“The public’s general consciousness is being raised very fast. People think of themselves as independent human beings with a right to be treated with respect rather than in a brutal, authoritarian way,” said Han Sang Jin, a Seoul National University sociologist. “In families, schools, the government bureaucracy and even the military barracks, the use of violence is encountering many forms of resistance.”

Violence as a means of social control is hardly unique to South Korea; it is a hallmark of most authoritarian or military regimes. South Koreans commonly blame their former Japanese colonial masters for teaching them the tools of terror, particularly in the military and among police. Whatever the origin, the nation’s pointed attempt to distance itself from its legacy of brutal suppression is producing startling changes.

Military officers who used to routinely resort to violence for discipline are being ordered to use detention or grueling training drills instead--and are being swiftly punished when they violate that policy. At the same time, more enlisted men are speaking out against the assaults, encouraged by top brass to register complaints in regular reporting sessions.

Police, prosecutors and prison guards are similarly refraining from violence as a means of extracting confessions or controlling inmates, said labor activist Kim, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award for publicizing his ordeal. Schools, which have long used corporal punishment, are curtailing the practice in the face of growing parental protests, according to authorities.

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And even in the home, the pervasive practice of wife-beating--long regarded as strictly a private matter--is being openly aired as a pressing social problem. Last month, South Korean TV viewers were given an unprecedented look at the once-taboo issue when a popular talk show featured one victim and her case, along with lawyers and scholars who discussed it.

No presidential decree or government campaign inaugurated the trend against institutional violence. Rather, the shift appears to be a natural result of “an individual awakening and a social mood that will no longer allow this kind of thing to happen,” Hong said.

That shift began after the 1987 presidential election of Roh Tae Woo ended three decades of authoritarian rule, but has accelerated under the Kim government, analysts say.

The nation’s newfound democracy and a greater appreciation for human rights are not the only reasons violence is on the wane. The shrinking size of Korean families--from an average of six children in 1960 to 1.7 in 1993--has made parents more protective of their offspring, officials say.

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In this Confucian society, where the eldest son represents the continuation of a family’s lineage, many will no longer tolerate their children’s welfare being jeopardized by military officers, police or teachers, they say.

South Korea’s rising affluence and education levels--as well as Western encroachment on traditional Confucian teachings to honor superiors--are also instilling a greater resistance to violence, officials say. Choi Joon In, a Board of Education official in Seoul’s southern district, said the growing ranks of professional parents, who are more educated than many teachers, are the most vocal in their protests.

“They don’t ask their children why they were beaten. They simply get angry and abuse teachers with harsh language,” Choi said. “They believe anything their child did was right and the teacher was wrong.”

Such modern attitudes sharply contrast with the long tradition of corporal punishment in South Korea. The word for teaching itself, gyopyon , means “teaching with a cane” in the characters used in Korean writing. Many teachers, and some parents, still support the judicious use of the cane to whip disobedient students on the palm or calf. But critics say too many teachers lose control and resort to brutality.

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Yoo Ihlhan, a South Korean diplomat, is one such critic. He was viciously beaten by his teacher, when he was a high school senior in 1966, for writing a smart-aleck answer to a quiz question. He was taken to the school roof, where the teacher pummeled him with a stick until he was bruised and bloody. His nose was so damaged that he had to undergo surgery to restore his ability to breathe. Yet his mother blamed him for being naughty.

Yoo says he has never beaten his two children, ages 11 and 15, and would “harshly protest” if any teacher hit them. “My generation is enough. I want my children educated through words and not violence,” he said.

Educators, however, say the growing public sentiment to “spare the rod” is producing spoiled brats and juvenile delinquents. Both substance abuse and violent crime among teen-agers are on a sharp upswing. Last year, for instance, youths accounted for 54% of the nation’s sexual offenses, up from 35% in 1992, and for 48% of violent crime, such as murders and robberies. The number of teens involved in crime increased by 16.2% in 1993 over the previous year, according to Justice Ministry figures.

Lee Chul Man, a teacher at Choong Dong High School in Seoul, argues that the growing social disorder is a direct result of too much parental laxity. He recalled a recent scene at a bookstore, where a child was making a fuss. When a middle-aged man scolded him for misbehavior, the child’s mother snapped at the man, “Why are you breaking my child’s spirit?”

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“If this is what democratization produces, I think our young generation and our society will undergo a chaotic period,” Lee said.

At Dae Kwang High School in Seoul, a recent student body presidential candidate campaigned on the slogan “Abolish beating by teachers” and won. As students have become more vocal, teachers have curtailed their corporal punishment, said sophomore Park Pyong Min, 17. But Park, who has been whipped by his teachers on the backside for scoring poorly on exams, said some corporal punishment is necessary “because there are guys who won’t behave otherwise.”

The trade-off is apparent in the military as well. Violence has long been officially prohibited in the military, but it was widely used until social pressure began curtailing it in recent years. Today, morale among officers is low and complaints are frequent that controlling men is difficult without the intimidating tool of a rifle butt or a cane, said Hong, the military sociologist.

“Before, the military was an untouchable sanctuary, but these days it is a glass room everyone can look into,” Hong said.

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But the military’s legacy of abuse in South Korea, a nation ruled by generals for three decades, has left it with little public sympathy. The turning point, analysts say, came when the democratically elected Roh government allowed unprecedented National Assembly hearings in 1988 that exposed the military’s role in the massacre of hundreds of demonstrators in Kwangju in 1980. In addition, the military’s role during the 1980s in the mysterious deaths or disappearances of at least 35 soldiers, many of them labor activists, has come under fire from such groups as the Democratic Bereaved Family Assn.

Not one missing-person case has been recorded since Kim was elected and launched a shake-up of the military. Enlisted men say that beatings still occur occasionally, but at nowhere near past levels.

Choi Hyong Sang, 24, was discharged in April after completing the mandatory two years of military service. He said he never experienced beatings, although his friend Pae Tae Ho, 24, was kicked in the stomach once. Rather than violence, the punishment of choice today is a grueling training drill in which the soldier is ordered to carry pounds of military gear on his back and run for hours, he said.

“The main difference is in the attitudes of soldiers,” Pae said. “More than half of them are college graduates, and they won’t take any abuses. Before, when a superior hit a subordinate, he didn’t think he would face any consequences. Now everyone thinks, ‘What if he reports?’ ”

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Reporting improprieties is actively encouraged. Enlisted men are asked to record them in regular meetings and, unlike in the past, their complaints are acted upon. Last year, Choi said, seven officers reprimanded for a beating in their regiment took turns beating the private who reported it. When the second incident came to light, all seven were arrested and placed in detention.

Choi and Pae said there still is peer pressure against reporting incidents, for fear of isolation; indeed, Pae did not report his superior who kicked him in the stomach. But they said top brass is threatening to punish officers who keep mum.

The pressure to report cases increased a few years ago, after a soldier left a military compound without permission, went berserk and took civilians hostage at rifle point. The soldier had had disciplinary problems, but his superiors had failed to report them.

Hong said violence is a legitimate tool of control in emergency combat situations, when there is no time to verbally persuade a soldier to act. Otherwise, it is an anachronistic practice unbefitting South Korea’s fledgling democracy, he said.

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Han Sang Jin’s encounter with violence came at the hands of the justice system. The Seoul National University professor was arrested in 1970 on suspicion of being involved with the pro-Communist student movement. When he refused to sign a statement that he supported Communist ideas, he was punched in the face, kicked and terrorized with threats that he would be taken to a special torture room. His tormentors were prosecutors and interrogators from the then-Korean Central Intelligence Agency, he said.

The one-week ordeal was so frightening that Han was plagued by nightmares for years. Yet Han says he was treated better than most because he was then a graduate student at the prestigious Seoul National University.

Less fortunate dissidents suffered more excruciating forms of torture, such as needles pushed under their fingernails or electric shock like that inflicted on labor activist Kim.

Kim, whose case became an international cause celebre after Amnesty International took it up, agreed that police have generally dropped violence and torture as tools of coercion. Instead, they keep prisoners awake all night during interrogation, make them stand and face a white wall for hours or verbally abuse them, he said.

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As in the military, those in the justice system who violate the new rules of nonviolence are swiftly punished. A prosecutor who hit a suspect was recently forced to resign, Kim said.

South Korea has come so far, so fast in improving its once-atrocious human rights record that about the only outstanding issue is the National Security Law. The law has been used to arrest political dissidents and was recently aimed at those who sent condolences to North Korea after the death of leader Kim Il Sung. Although Kim Young Sam called for its abolition when he was a presidential candidate, he now defends it as a necessary tool of state.

But the old forms of terror are gone for good, marking an important transition for South Korea, say Kim Keun Tae and others.

“Violence by the powerful against the powerless is now punished,” Kim says, “and this will be the last generation of Koreans who take violence for granted.”

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Chi Jung Nam of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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