Seoul — South Korean students are restive again. For the first time since the Park government was toppled in 1980, they are taking their protests out of the campus and onto the streets.
Inevitably, the latest demonstrations have reminded people of the violent riots of 1980 that led to nationwide martial law, the arrest of political opposition and student leaders, and a general uprising in the southern town of Kwangju that left 189 dead.
This time, however, the riots seem to be much more limited, with less public support.
The number of students involved in the disturbances is relatively small - seldom more than 400 to 500 at a time out of campus populations ranging from 4, 000 to 14,000. But university sources say many more sympathize with the demonstrators and are afraid to act. Certainly the penalties can be heavy - expulsion and the loss of any career prospects, and for the ringleaders, arrest and imprisonment.
Students criticize the government for not taking a strong enough stand against Japan's recent rewriting of school textbooks glossing over the atrocities committed by the former Japanese colonial rule in Korea (1910-1945). Economic domination by Japan and the United States are recurring bones of contention. But the overriding theme of the student demonstrations is a general hostility toward President Chun Doo Hwan and his government.
Many students still see Chun as an ''army strong man'' who took power by force and brutally repressed all political opposition. The various democratic reforms he has since introduced are regarded, at least by the more militant, as purely cosmetic.
They are angered by the continuing repression of their freedom of speech on political matters and demand the removal of government informants and plainclothes police from the universities. The plainclothes men, whom the students call ''political hooligans,'' hang around the campuses in high-profile groups and are usually the first to try to break up any demonstrations. They punch, kick, and throw students to the ground.
Riot police patrolled the streets in late September stopping young people to check their ID cards and ask where they were going. Menacing black crowd-control vehicles, police jeeps, and more than 60 police buses were parked down side streets in the vicinity of the main government buildings.
Following a series of campus demonstrations over the previous two weeks, students who had been attending inter-university games at Seoul Stadium spilled onto the streets to stage an antigovernment and anti-Japanese demonstration. Police were waiting for them but only succeeded in dispersing them with tear gas after a couple of hours.
Three days later, student demonstrators at Sogang Jesuit University in Seoul were dispersed by police. They attempted to reassemble on the streets and march to the city center. Once again riot police, their helmets, truncheons, and shields giving them a somewhat medieval appearance, quickly scattered the marchers.
Many university staff members share the students' abhorrence of these men. ''The uniformed police are a symbol of authority and we respect them; so do most of the students. But these plainclothes men, I call them 'blowflies,' they behave like gangsters, which is what I guess many of them are,'' a professor said.
The demonstrators may have sympathizers in academic and religious circles and among leftist politicians and workers, but so far no one has publicly expressed support. The public seems more inclined to the government view that the students pose a serious threat to domestic stability, the economy, and national security threatened by North Korea.
''These students should be condemned,'' said a government official, adding that this was his personal view. He explained, ''This is not a Western society; we have no illusions about it. Considering the economic and political difficulties we are in, we can't give privileges to these young rascals.''
The government is in a difficult situation. On the one hand it must ask the South Korean people to make sacrifices and accept restrictions on their freedom because ''technically we are still at war with North Korea.''
On the other, it must promote the image of a country confident of domestic stability, if it is to encourage the internal and foreign investment vital for the economy. Anything, such as student discontent, that appears to threaten that stability makes government officials very nervous, indeed.
Official policy toward student disturbances appears to be to hit fast and hard, to nip dissent in the bud. So far this has successfully prevented a serious escalation of student demonstrations. There is no doubt, though, that it has also caused a buildup of resentment among students that could boil over.
(Reuter reports from Seoul that male workers beat up female colleagues who were using a factory sit-in Oct. 1 to demand higher wages and reinstatement of their union.)