Seoul — Violence has dealt a severe blow to the South Korean opposition's campaign to revise the Constitution. A rally for direct election of the president, which was scheduled to take place Saturday in the city of Inchon, never had a chance to get off the ground. Police began battling thousands of students and workers in the streets before opposition leaders including Kim Young Sam even approached the hall where the rally was to be held.
In the Saturday afternoon riot turned their wrath not only against the governments of South Korea and the United States, but also against the opposition New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP) itself, which students see as too accommodating. The melee marks a bitter turn of events for the NKDP, which, until Saturday, had succeeded in pulling off a series of largely peaceful rallies around the country.
The students set fire to a car belonging to an NKDP official and a police truck used for launching tear gas and started a fire that gutted the local headquarters of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. Some students savagely beat captured riot police and plainclothes men, and police report more than 30 police injuries. It is not clear how many students were injured by police, who are not known for their restraint.
Exactly how the fighting started is still in dispute. The NKDP accuses police of provoking the riot by firing tear gas into the crowd to break up a peaceful assembly. NKDP officials repeatedly asked riot police to withdraw. In previous rallies, radical students managed to hold their own meetings and clashed with police only after the main rally ended.
Saturday's events capped off a week of rising violence and extremism on university campuses and signal a breakdown in the tenuous cooperation between the moderate and extreme factions of the opposition. Last Tuesday, thousands of students met at Yonsei University in Seoul to inaugurate a pan-university organization of student activists known as Minmintu, which roughly means ``Struggle for Democracy and Nationalism.''
On the same day, Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's leading dissident, joined others in the opposition in denouncing rising anti-Americanism and extremism. It was an unusual step that was bound to anger students, but Mr. Kim and the NKDP needed to distance themselves from extremists in order to avoid losing credibility among the broader public.
``Moderation and nonviolence are the only way we can get the broad support of our people,'' Kim said yesterday. Many people were shocked by last week's attempted self-immolation by two students. One of those students died Saturday. Another student reportedly tried to burn himself to death in Inchon on Saturday.
Student rhetoric has acquired an increasingly radical, Marxist tinge. Many student extremists now describe themselves as communists, although they profess no allegiance to North Korea.
``US imperialism'' has become the principal target of their attacks and -- for the first time -- the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea has become a popular rallying cry. These radicals are still a tiny minority, but as the weekend's events prove, they can make a big noise. Occasionally they join forces with more moderate students in a common cause.
Although most South Koreans would condemn violence, many also express sympathy with students. ``People sympathize with student radicals because they believe the political system is unjust,'' a Western diplomat said. South Koreans traditionally have great respect for sincerity and nothing expresses it more profoundly than suicide for a cause.
But there is little sympathy for the police. ``Police excesses disrupted campus life and alienated many people,'' said one Western diplomat commenting on police behavior in recent months. Many people now believe that student extremism is something the government will have to learn to live with and that attempts to wipe it out, as the government has vowed, will only cause it to spread.
For the more moderate opposition, the rise of student extremism presents a major dilemma. Kim Dae Jung said yesterday that the opposition should on principle continue with its series of public rallies to promote constitutional amendment.
Yet, government charges that the opposition rallies only encourage violence now sound more credible. Arguments about who threw the first stone have a hollow ring, after scores of people have been injured and buildings and cars burned. In the coming days, the opposition will have to respond to the offer President Chun Doo Hwan made last week to have the constitutional debate moved out of the streets and back into the National Assembly. After the weekend's events, the NKDP may have little choice but to accept. But this is a decision that could wrench the party apart and turn it into a handful of warring factions.