S. Korea students vow continued vigilance. Activists wary of intent behind ruling party's promises of change
Opposition leader Kim Young Sam had a surprise visitor at his headquarters yesterday - ruling party chairman Roh Tae Woo. The game of politics is now being played in earnest in South Korea. Mr. Roh's uncharacteristic display of humility was a gesture calculated to play to the crowds. He brought reporters and cameramen along to make sure it would not be missed.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Kim, after recovering his balance, pressed his own agenda. All political prisoners should be released, he told Roh. The day before, Kim received the mothers of political detainees. After meeting Roh, he went on a publicized visit to Seoul prisons.
The air is distinctly that of politicians beginning an election campaign. Although the two sides are only beginning the concrete talks that will bring about the direct presidential elections promised by the regime of President Chun Doo Hwan, the political manuevering is well underway.
On the other side of Seoul, on the campus of Yonsei University, all of this is being watched with a wary eye. Student activists have been the vanguard of the struggle against the military-backed regime. They are not convinced that the commitments for change made by Roh this week are sincere.
``It is not only my personal view,'' insisted a business student, ``but lots of students [believe] we are being put into a trap by the government.''
Today activists from 28 Seoul campuses will gather for a debate on the future course of their movement. ``Even if we admit that this decision by Roh is the result of our struggle,'' a joint student association statement announcing the gathering declared, ``our doubt and suspicion increase because of the fear that ... by calming down the people's enthusiasm for democracy, the US and this present regime could plan to perpetuate their interests.''
Lee Jae Ho, the chairman of the Korean Christian Student Federation, says, ``We have seen the Philippines after the overthrow of [President] Marcos where the people's movement tended to fade away. We have to be very careful not to follow the same path.''
Historically, students have played a crucial political role in Korea. Since the days of struggle against Japanese colonialism, student revolts have been the catalyst for wider uprisings. In Korea's Confucian culture, students enjoy great respect as carriers of education.
For each generation, student protests have been the norm. In the postwar period, students led the 1960 overthrow of President Syngman Rhee, known as the April Revolution. The democratic period that followed was short-lived, leading to military takeover.
``We can see many similarities between this situation and after the April Revolution,'' worries the business student.
The student movement, both its radical and moderate wings, has an outlook that is well to the left of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party. During recent protests, they have allied with the coalition of mainly church and social activist organizations. They share with them an agenda beyond the immediate goal of democratization of the electoral process.
The radical students seek to make common cause with Korea's working class, particularly the mostly unorganized urban workers. The Roh demands, a Yonsei Student Association statement asserted, failed to touch on ``workers' rights'' to organize and to strike. Farmers must be freed from indebtedness, it said, and forced slum clearance in cities stopped.
The students also seek to link their anti-Americanism to growing Korean economic nationalism. Roh, they wrote, ``made no proposals on how to defend against American economic pressure'' for greater US imports.
Within the student movement is a hard-core left, organized in underground groups like the Minmintu (``People's Democratic Struggle''). These groups have played an important leadership role but, student activists say, they are now very isolated. During the recent protest, Minmintu described the situation as ``revolutionary,'' calling for establishment of a ``people's democracy.'' They are now likely, observers say, to become even more violent as they shrink in influence.
While the rest of the student movement disavows such extreme goals, they share a deep distrust of the Chun regime. ``This regime will not easily give up power,'' the business student says.For Korean students, standing guard over the democratic process is a time-honored role they will not readily relinquish.
``It is a difficult situation for the student movement,'' concedes student leader Lee. ``Some may go back to the library now but most will continue to fight. It has been this way historically.''