Korea gets tough with students. Police crack down as challenge to government rises

The South Korean government has finally lost patience with rebellious students. Before the sun rose on June 29, it sent hundreds of police in a sweep through nine major universities here in the capital and arrested 66 people, all but one of them students.

The crackdown caps off a long spring season of escalating student challenges to the government's authority. Although student protest has been a regular feature of South Korean life for many years, the students have been growing bolder and increasingly violent.

The United States has also found itself drawn uncomfortably into the midst of the fire. The reverberations of the four-day sit-in in May at the American Cultural Center in Seoul have yet to die down.

For months, students had been taking advantage of the government's ``campus autonomy'' policy, introduced this spring as part of a program of political liberalization. Before that, police stationed squads of plainclothes men on campuses and sent in riot police at the first sign of a demonstration.

Since then, police have simply bottled the students up in the campuses, meeting them with a barrage of tear gas as they try to march off into the streets.

Tear gas in Seoul has become nearly as pervasive a pollutant as auto exhaust. As a rough measure of the growing violence, tear gas use has more or less doubled every year since 1981, according to a government report. In the first five months of 1985, the police fired some 145,000 tear-gas canisters.

The students have responded in kind. They have burned some police vehicles with homemade incendiary devices -- a tactic unheard of until recently. They have also grown bolder off the campuses: Last fall they occupied the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. This spring they occupied the library of the American Cultural Center.

The students want, very simply, to overthrow the government -- in the now glorified tradition established in 1960, when student demonstrations forced the resignation of then-President Syngman Rhee after a rigged election.

Diplomats agree that anti-Americanism in South Korea, where the presence of US troops is widely welcomed, is a growing but not yet threatening problem. Many students target the US as an easy stand-in for their own government.

The students who occupied the American library wanted the US to apologize for what they say was US complicity in the suppression of the uprising of 1980, when students took control of the southern city of Kwangju. The government says 191 people died in the week-long conflict.

The students who occupied the library believe the US must have played a role in suppressing the Kwangju uprising because the US commanding officer in South Korea has operational control over much of South Korea's armed forces.

What they got from the US instead, when they voluntarily left the library, was a denial of any responsibility and a promise that the US ambassador to South Korea, Richard L. Walker, would meet with the students at a later date.

Ambassador Walker says he is still willing to meet with the students. But if the South Korean government has anything to say about it, the meeting will never take place. South Korean officials say it is an insult for the US ambassador to meet with what they regard as dangerous radicals and criminals.

The US is standing its ground and insists that in view of the US security commitments to South Korea, embassy personnel will meet with all types of Koreans.

That may be a moot point, however, since the campus raid on June 29 netted some of the leaders of the sit-in. The police also hauled away a few truckloads of Molotov cocktails and ``leftist'' literature.

The students did not elicit a US apology, but they did focus national and, to some extent, international attention on what they see as the illegitimate origins of the current government -- the suppression of the Kwangju uprising.

The students helped break a taboo on public discussion of the uprising, which is still mired in controversy. The issue subsequently came up for debate in the National Assembly. The opposition New Korea Democratic Party labeled the incident a democratic uprising and called for a full investigation. Many opposition politicians believe the trail of guilt will lead to the presidential mansion.

The government continued to claim that the uprising was inspired by subversive elements and continued to deny widespread reports that the death toll was far higher than the official count.

The debate resolved nothing. But all sides moved a step closer to an airing of South Korea's deep political divisions.

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