One lesson of the week's mass student demonstrations in South Korea is that, when a government tries to move toward democracy, it should not fail to give the appearance of doing so. The prime minister, whose resignation was among the student demands, may have'shown some sensitivity to this public relations problem when his television address on the situation avoided the confrontational tone some observers had feared. He stressed the severe setbacks in South Korea's extraordinary economic record, asking for calm and order in the interest of meeting these. And he reiterated the pledge of constitutional reform this year and elections next year.
The government needs to go on from there to give citizens, including the student political bellwethers, a sense of participation in an increasingly free process.
The fact is that some of the repression of the President Park years has been lifted. Indeed, some of the organizers of these student demonstrations are believed to be student activists allowed to return to their campuses after removal from them under Park.
But martial law has continued, prompting the students to demand an end to it. They were concerned, too, about the recent naming of the head of the nation's Defense Security Command to run the Korean Central Intelligence Agency also. Though he reportedly cleaned house at the CIA and promised such reforms as keeping it out of political surveillance, his holding of the two posts created apprehension. For the first time a uniformed military man was in the top intelligence job.
In other words, whatever the intentions of the leadership in moving toward liberalization, the impression of change has not been sufficient for the public as represented by the student cross section that took to the streets. Close observers note that the clashes with police should not be described as student riots. Violence came when students refused to be confined on campus or blocked from some city areas.
South Korea's economic condition does require the cooperation of all. This has a better chance of being achieved the more the rulers showm they are working toward democracy as well as actually working toward it.