Tear Gas and Protests Waft Away As S. Korean Students Go Quiet
Violent incidents and growth of democracy dispel pro-North movement
SEOUL — After decades of firebombs and tear gas, South Korea's protesting students - once their country's conscience and a common sight on television news worldwide - are suddenly going extinct.
Just last year, they were out in full force on Aug. 15, National Liberation Day, demanding reunification with North Korea. Students battled riot police with steel pipes and firebombs. They seized university buildings. Police fired so much tear gas - even dropping it from helicopters - that trees withered around Yonsei University's campus in Seoul.
In addition to destroying property and clogging traffic, last year's confrontation generated public outrage against Hanchongnyon, the Korean Federation of Student Councils. Public disgust, a new government crackdown, and internal dissent are crumbling the federation.
During most of the 1980s, when South Korea was still under a dictatorship, the public respected student demonstrators for promoting democracy. But since the election of a civilian president in 1992, they've lost support. After witnessing the radical and violent action of last year's demonstration, an outraged public and many fellow students turned their backs on the protesters.
"They don't fight for freedom anymore - just for North Korea," says Lee Joo-seop, a graduate student at Seoul National University.
The last straw came early this summer when students mistook an innocent bystander for a police informer and beat him to death.
The government was able to declare Hanchongnyon an illegal organization, ordering its members to disband or face arrest. On July 31, at the end of a grace period, government agents started hunting some 450 hard-core student protesters and put up most-wanted posters in airports, and bus and train stations.
The Education Ministry threatened to cut subsidies to schools whose student councils don't withdraw from the federation. More than 130 of 206 member colleges have cut ties with the federation so far, and a reformist faction has rallied for the resignation of current leaders.
In the past, protesting students aimed to provoke the government by espousing a version of modern Korean history and a strategy for unifying the split peninsula that mimics North Korean propaganda. The government feared such views, if accepted widely, would undermine its legitimacy and its ability to deal with the North. It classified demonstrators as "benefiting the enemy," which allowed them to face arrest.
Typically, students confronted the government in the streets. When blocked from marching, they charged police barricades with steel pipes while throwing firebombs and chunks of broken sidewalk. Police retaliated with tear gas.
But chaotic-looking demonstrations actually have clearly defined rituals and boundaries. During cycles of charging and retreating by both sides, pedestrians aren't harmed and stores aren't looted.
Breaking with tradition this year, just a few hundred students gathered to light candles and sing along with a concert in a public park. Riot police waited dutifully, sweating in their padded clothing, but nothing happened. Many students have simply lost interest in political issues. They are concentrating on getting good jobs or just enjoying life.
Meanwhile, the faithful in Hanchongnyon are a rare breed. They still believe in North Korea's efforts to build a communist paradise even while living in wealthy South Korea and hearing news reports of North Korea's near-famine, its totalitarian government, and the defection of Hwang Jang-yop, a prime author of North Korea's ideology. Mr. Hwang "is a traitor," says an active Hanchongnyon member at Korea University in Seoul. But while people come and go, the ideology lives on, he says.
Although the student movement appears to be falling apart, the faithful say it's just a temporary phase and believe Hanchongnyon will regain popular support. "These days society is lost" in personal economic issues and has forgotten about political issues like reunification, says the Korea University student.
With a presidential election in December, the ruling party wants to appear strong against communism. And the main opposition candidate, Kim Dae-jung, has taken a hard line to lure conservative voters.
To prevent a repeat of last year, police checked IDs at campuses across Seoul last week hoping to thwart demonstrations. But only in the southern city of Kwangju, the national hotbed of activism, did police need to disband an attempted demonstration.
Most activists have already disavowed violence.
In the future, "we'll use a method that makes the people applaud and join us," says Ahn Eun-sook, a student who participated in last year's violent demonstrations.
The emotional appeal of unifying with the North is still potent in this adamantly nationalist country. Observers predict that Hanchongnyon will be reborn under another name.