S. Korea opposition: rising support brings rare display of unity
Kwangju, South Korea
The South Korean political opposition has suddenly sprung to life again. After a year marked by frustrating defeats and internal divisions, it is now riding a powerful groundswell of support for democratic reform. This new vigor is the result of a fresh appeal to the roots of its strength: ordinary South Koreans.Skip to next paragraph
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The latest display of their support came Sunday in the city of Kwangju, where more than 50,000 people showed up at a mass rally for constitutional reform, according to independent observers. (The government maintains that the figure was much lower, while rally organizers put the turnout at more than 100,000.)
In the space of little more than a month, the campaign for democratic reform of the Constitution has galvanized the opposition, while nearly immobilizing the government's ability to thwart the movement.
The campaign has taken the form of a petition drive calling for constitutional revision. The opposition wants to scrap the system of voting for president through a 5,000-man electoral college, which the opposition says can be manipulated by the government. Instead, the opposition wants to hold a new, direct presidential election by the fall of 1987.
The drive has turned into a unifying force for all the disparate elements of the opposition.
``It is true that we have our political differences,'' says Hong Nam Soon, an elderly lawyer in Kwangju, who has become a grandfather figure for the movement. ``But we can all agree on the signature campaign.''
One political group after another, from the Union of Catholic Farmers to student federations, has expressed support, and they are beginning to form regional and national coalitions.
The Roman Catholic Church now supports the movement, as do influential Protestant organizations, including the National Council of Churches.
Last week, 28 professors from Korea University issued a statement supporting constitutional reform and calling for political freedom. The significance of this development is hard to underestimate, given what happened the last time professors acted collectively against the government, 26 years ago.
``It is an epochmaking event,'' dissident leader Kim Young Sam said Sunday. ``It is the same as the professors' statement at the end of the First Republic against the Syngman Rhee dictatorship which finally deposed the regime.'' (Mr. Rhee, who had dominated South Korean politics since the country's establishment in 1948, was forced to resign May 3, 1960.)
Sunday's rally in Kwangju was a festive affair. In a deeply symbolic act, the huge crowd shoved a line of uniformed police back across a large downtown plaza popularly known as ``democracy square.''
Rallies were held on the same spot in May 1980, when the city rose in a week-long insurrection after martial law was declared. Police killed several hundred protesters during the 1980 rebellion.
Sunday's rally represented a remarkable cross section of the population. Besides the politicians, students, workers, ministers, and merchants, old farmers in straw boaters and silk pantaloons were bused in from the countryside with their wives. One man led his pregnant wife through the crowd, and children played throughout the rally.
The peacefulness of the day was marred only after most of the crowd dispersed and a remnant of students decided to pick a fight with police. Some 70 students were reportedly arrested.
The opposition's fortunes had reached a nadir this past January. After a strong showing in the February 1985 National Assembly elections, it had tried to pursue democratic reforms in the National Assembly but found its efforts frustrated by the ruling party's unwillingness to agree on meaningful compromise.