South Korea: martial law fails to halt spread of civilian uprising

Some South Korean intellectuals are calling the present situation in their riot-torn country the "Soul spring" -- a wry reference to the Russian crackdown on fleeting Czech liberalization in the spring of 1968.

The military, which has assumed sweeping powers since the government fell, has rounded up many ruling party and opposition politicians, student and religious leaders, and dampened even the prospects for talking about democracy.

The imposition of martial law followed days of heavy and widespread rioting that has engulfed student campuses, and spread to the streets with broader-based popular support.

The government, which accepted responsibility for failing to halt the student violence, quit Tuesday. The following day President Choi Kyu-ha appointed the former deputy prime minister, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Park Choong-hoon, as acting prime minister, and named a new 19-man Cabinet.

"Imposing tighter martial law will control the situation for a while," said a university professor, "but it only postpones the growing confrontation between the authorities and those who support a democratic system."

The confrontation is most apparent in Kwangju, where it appeared that the people of that southwestern city had taken over control. By May 21 some 200,000 demonstrators were battling with 10,000 troops.

According to one Reuter report, the protesters raided armories, commandeered Army vehicles, and broke into a factory and seized new armored personnel carriers. By Martial Law Command's own accounts demonstrators had commandeered 4 armored trucks, 80 jeeps, and 50 trucks. They also seized 3,500 carbines and pistols, 2 light machine guns, and more than 46,000 round of ammunition.

Both sides were calling in reinforcements as a general uprising against the military was reported to be spreading to other parts of Cholla Province surrounding Kwangju.

Massive student demonstrations last week calling for faster-paced democratic reforms triggered the military's move, even though Washington protested that the military crackdown was unnecessary.

The official justification was that North Korea might take advantage of political unrest in the South and launch an invasion.

There were South Korean reports of mysterious North Korean troop movements. But the United Nations Command in Seoul said last week there was no evidence of suspicious North Korean activity.

Key military leaders, however, insisting that the country needs public order and social stability to cope with the "threat from the North," clamped down on political activity.

South Korea's national Assembly, for instance, ringed by tanks and heavily armed troops, was set to meet Tuesday to discuss democratic reforms. It didn't. Just the day before, military authorities issued orders banning the assembly meeting. Given the present atmosphere that hardly came as a surprise.

The ban on the assembly meeting, plus numerous political arrests, has made a shambles of the Korean democratic process. "It's an outrage what the authorities are doing after the high hopes people had for more democracy," complains one American missionary.

Interim President Choi Kyu-ha has promised elections in 1981 in spite of martial law, but even though he is the official head of the armed forces, some observers express doubt that he is strong enough to keep the military in check, and deliver on his promise.

Sources say the real reason for the government's transfer of power to the military came after increasingly strong antiestablishment criticism by students, laborers, and opposition politicians. The government was apparently stunned by the bitterness of the dissent.

One Korean official said student demonstrators last week also distributed materials with strong anti-American slogans. Despite this, the U.S. Ambassador to Seoul, William Gleysteen, was privately reported to be "very upset" about the military takeover.

Some Korean lawmakers who haven't been arrested yet by the Martial Law Command attempted to enter the National Assembly Tuesday morning but were stopped by soldiers and tanks.

Two of the soldiers used rifles with fixed bayonets to move legislators away from the assembly building. When a superior officer noticed this and all the journalists present, he ordered the two soldiers to remove the bayonets.

This nicety was wasted on the angered politicians. The opposition New Democratic Party leader Kim Young Sam called reporters to his home for a press conference Tuesday, but when the press arrived, so did a truck load of troops. The reporters were forced to leave Mr. Kim's house.

Later Mr. Kim sent a message saying he believes martial law imposed this week goes completely against the will of the people. Mr. Kim was then put under house arrest by troops, thus making him the latest major politician to be silenced by Korea's new military bosses.

One of the key military figures in the Martial Law Command is Gen. Chun Doo hwan, who heads the Korean CIA. During their protests students demanded his resignation. They said they were afraid that Gen. Chun would eventually use his position to make a bid for power.

Students have been warned that violent protests would provide General Chun with the excuse to adopt a military hard line and to stifle growing social and political dissent against the government.

The military are saying that social disturbances, such as the massive student demonstrations last week, only play into the hands of the North Korean communists.

Unfortunately, since the military appears to have no confidence in the ability of South Koreans to handle democratic institutions, no one really knows whether democratic reforms could really play into communist strategies or not.

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