Seoul — Students at Seoul National University, South Korea's most prestigious, clashed violently with riot police on three consecutive days last week, giving rise to fears that President Chun Doo Hwan's "new era" may have an Achilles' heel.
The ministers of education put out a strong statement at the weekend saying that in the interests of the nation's security, the government would not tolerate any further student unrest but would overcome it at any cost.
Two hours later a government spokesman announced without explanation that the statement had been withdrawn, even though by that time it had already been put out by the state-run Korean Broadcasting System and the Yonhap News Agency.
The incident was a good illustration of the quandary that the new government, like most other South Korean governments, has found itself in in dealing with rebellious students, who continue to demand nothing less than full-scale democracy, Western style.
If the government reacts too fiercely, the students may win sympathy and support from other sectors of society. this is essentially what happened in the uprising in the southern provincial capital of Kwangju last year.
But if the government looks the other way, student action could build up to a repeat of last year's rampage by 50,000 students through the streets of Seoul.
In an attempt to avoid this dilemma, the aim so far has been to nip student rebellion in the bud. Protest meetings and marches on campus and the illegal leafleting has brought instant retaliation from riot police using tear gas. Students and staff have complained the campuses are crawling with plainclothes men, some masquerading as students -- even, ludicrously, wearing wigs to conceal their giveaway short hair.
But in last week's demonstrations at Seoul National University, involving at least 1,000 students, tension rose dangerously high after one student, calling for President Chun's resignation, jumped to his death from a fifth-floor window.
Student opposition, which toppled the republic's first government under President Syngman Rhee, is considered a serious threat in Korea, not only to the government but to the nation's security vis-a-vis hostility from the Communist North. It is also seen as the only genuine public opposition voice in spite of the various reforms under Chun.
"The students know that although many things are being done in the name of democracy, we do not really have democracy here," said a staff member of Seoul National University.
With many of their members among the 567 former policians now banned, with dissident Kin Dae Jung serving a life sentence and former opposition leader Kim Young Sam under house arrest, the opposition had no hope of finding significant candidates to oppose President Chun and his Democratic Justice Party.
As a result, although new political parties have been formed and the National Assembly is functioning, the parliamentary opposition is not generally considered an effective force in running the country.
Few Koreans doubt that the most powerful force in the country is, in fact, the military; many accept that this is inevitable, given the threats by North Korea of unifying the peninsula by force under communism. Most also accept the necessity of the many restrictions that South Koreans are still subject to -- the midnight curfew, for example, the difficulty in getting a passport, obligatory military training.
But unless the government can convince the more militant students that the new democracy is more than a facade -- window dressing for the world -- the campuses will remain a potential danger.