TOKYO — THREE weeks of student demonstrations, which reached a peak over the weekend with the largest street protests since 1987, have failed to topple South Korea's elected government. The protests, which sought the resignation of President Roh Tae Woo, have proven to be a defining moment for South Korea's young and maturing democracy.
With the prospect of four elections being held over the next 18 months, including a vote next year for a new president, the nation's middle class made a decisive choice in recent weeks not to back the protests. South Korea's newly wealthy appear to have opted for political stability, while many reacted in sympathy for seven protesters who killed themselves, six by self-immolation.
In 1987, middle-class support of student activists was crucial in the massive protests, which ended 26 years of successive military dictatorships in South Korea.
These recent protests were triggered by the April 26 beating death of a student by riot policemen, and were fueled by the seasonal regularity of demonstrations leading up to the May 18 anniversary of a 1980 massacre of protesters in Kwangju by the military.
Protest leaders say they have little faith in a process dominated by a ruling party led by former military officers. On Saturday, an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 confronted 22,000 riot policemen in the capital, Seoul, enveloping the city in tear gas.
Mr. Roh, while politically strong, has had difficulty weathering the protests because of his increasing unpopularity. He apologized for the student's death, fired his home minister, and remains under pressure to sack Prime Minister Ro Jai Bong, a close associate, perhaps this week. Removing the prime minister might serve to put a spotlight on himself.
Roh took a conciliatory step of moving to release several dozen prisoners, most of whom were convicted under the stringent National Security Law, according to the semiofficial Yonhap news agency. And the government also was moving to reduce the sentence for Im Su Kyong, a woman jailed for five years in 1989 for an illegal visit to North Korea, and to drop charges against opposition leader Kim Dae Jung for failing to report a visit to North Korea by a member of his political party.
The Roh government, weakened by a bribery scandal and criticized for implementing reforms too slowly, was able to gain widespread support in March during a first round of local elections. Another round is due next month, in which the ruling party is also expected to do well.
Last year, Roh was able to convince Kim Young Sam, a key opposition figure, to join an uneasy alliance under the newly formed Democratic Liberal Party. Kim Dae Jung, the remaining major opposition figure, gave only lukewarm support to the recent protests, citing fear of a military takeover if violence erupted in the demonstrations.
South Korean Information Minister Choi Chang-yoon charged that the protests were organized by communist elements. North Korea's official news agency made an unusual appeal May 8 for South Koreans to rise up and oust the Roh government.