Frustration and a sense of helplessness grip ordinary citizens of South Korea as tense confrontation continues between martial-law authorities and civilian demonstrators in the southern city of Kwangju.
Will North Korea make a move toward invasion while the South is gripped by unrest? Is there no alternative to authoritarian military rule? Can progress toward democratic government be resumed after this interruption of martial law?
Most political observers are convinced that the overwhelming majority of South Koreans prefer a return to democracy. But at the moment they are just bystanders, watching the drama being played out in Kwangju, fearful that troubles may spread to other cities, yet convinced that military repression is of itself no answer.
There has been no substantial efforts either by President Choi Kyu-ha or by the military authorities to explain what they are doing and what issues are at stake. They just make references to "impure elements" being responsible for the rioting in Kwangju. And they promise that the transition to constitutionally elected government will continue.
[There are some reports from Seoul that President Choi has made a television appeal to rebels to resolve the crisis through talks rather than violence. This includes a promise of "maximum leniency" if the students cooperate].
[Additionally, President Choi's whereabouts are unknown. And this is leading to speculation that a full military takeover of the government may be imminent.]
The response of the United States -- South Korea's only real guarantor against an invasion from the communist North -- has been to warn North Korea against any attempt to take advantage of unrest in the South. And it has given point to that warning by dispatching the aircraft carrier Coral Sea to the area. The US also expresses strong hope that progress toward elected government in South Korea will continue.
Some South Koreans think the Americans government should do more. One view is that the US is responsible for security on the peninsula. It holds that the US should send troops to Kwangju and take over the policing of the city.
Others believe that the responsibility for solving problems between Koreans must be Korean. "Militarily, the United States did its best for South Vietnam," points out a government official. "Yet South Vietnam fell to the communists because its people were not united. That ought to be the lesson of Vietnam for us."
There is now no overt sign of a North Korean military move. But some citizens of Seoul are quietly preparing an emergency supply of prepared foods in case they might have to flee suddenly.
The disturbances in Kwangju, the capital of Cholla Namdo Province 250 kilometers south of Seoul, were precipitated by the declaration of martial law May 17. This followed weeks of agitation by students in Seoul and other cities, culminating in three days of violent street demonstrations, all seeking an end to martial law and more rapid progress toward democratic rule. Prominent among student demands was the dismissal of military security commander Gen. Chon Doo Hwan, who is widely regarded as the real power behind a figurehead civilian president.
Martial law, accompanied by the closing of the universities, strict press censorship, and the arrest of prominent politicians, students, professors, and other opposition figures, brought an end to demonstrations in Seoul and most other cities. But in Kwangju students continued to defy riot police and troops with fixed bayonets. Reports of brutality -- including allegedly bayonetting by paratroopers -- inflamed tempers and brought out other demonstrators, including taxi drivers. On May 21 government troops retired from the city center, firing as they went.
At this writing, government troops were again pushing slowly toward the city center. while a citizen's group including the Roman Catholic archbishop of Kwangju had taken over responsibility for negotiation with the martial-law authorities.
Students in Kwangju reportedly looted armories to obtain about 4,000 weapons, of which all but 500 now have reportedly been surrendered to the citizens' committee.Martial-law authorities have made the recovery of all stolen arms a conditon for the peaceful settlement of the issue.They claim, so far without substantiation, that North Korean agents have infiltrated the Kwangju demonstrators.
There is widespread feeling that South Korea is ready for more representative government. The minicoup by General Chon and his friends December 12 flew in the face of this feeling. And the imposition of full martial law May 17 has only confirmed the popular suspicion that General Chon has been looking for an excuse to solidify and perpetuate his grip on government.