Seoul — "Some of us want to fight the regime," the student leader said. "Others want to persuade it in a peaceful way." There, in two short sentences, is the dilemma facing South Korea's students in their struggle for freedom and democracy.
Should they take to the streets, with all the risks of violent confrontation with police and the material law authorities, on the grounds that only noisy public pressure can force the lifting of martial law and the holding of democratic elections?
Or should they remain inside their own campuses, arguing out the great issues of the day, but watchful not to be used by politicians whether pro- or anti-government, nor to allow communist North Korea the opportunity to subvert the security of the South?
"As for our particular student organization, we have chosen the peaceful way, " the student leader continued. "But our tactics will be radical or progressive [that is, less radical] depending on circumstanceS."
The student, a senior studying literature, did not want to be identified. He is one of the most prominent leaders to surface since student elections were resumed.
News-media photographs of students fighting police in the streets give a somewhat misleading impression of the actual state of South Korean universities today.
After many long years of repression under the late President Park, students are in the forefront of the movement for a rapid evolution toward democratic and constitutional government.
Some groups have, indeed, taken to the streets with a variety of grievances. They range from campus issues such as opposition to teachers who allegedly collaborated with President Park's Yushin system, to straight political demands, such as the immediate lifting of martial law.
But so far, at least, this has not been the attitude of a majority of the students, especially those of the so-called first-rate universities such as Seoul National, Yonsei, Korea, or Sogang.
"We cannot neglect public opinion," said my student friend, who attends the most elite of the so-called elite universities. "In fact, we feel that one of the major mistakes made by student demonstrators of the 1964 generation [who opposed normalization with Japan] and of the early 1970s what that they neglected the grass roots."
And the grass roots, to the extent this correspondent has been able to sample in interviews with workers, teachers, housewives, and others, seem to want two things: visible, measurable progress toward a new democratic government, and no breakdown of law and order.
Many students seem to share this evolution-not-revolution public mood. For example, students at a provincial university recently erupted onto the streets in a noisy political demonstration. They reached the square by the railway station around 6 p.m., just as the daily ceremony of playing the national anthem was about to take place. They promptly stood at attention with all the other passers-by in the square. Their mood changed. The university president was able to lead them quietly back to campus.
Education Minister Kim Ok-gill, the energetic and courageous former president of Ewha Women's University, has helped to preserve peace by standing up for the students in the Cabinet and with martial-law authorities.
Together with her deputy minister, Kim Hyung-ki, she has gotten the military authorities and the ubiquitous Korean Central Intelligence Agency at least temporarily to keep their agents and operatives off university campuses, in order to provide room for a sense of responsible self-government to revive within the student body.