A new mood of cautious optimism was tangible in the streets of the South Korean capital yesterday following the announcement of President Chun Doo Hwan's agreement to meet with opposition leaders. ``It is a sign of victory,'' said the Rev. In Myung Jin, a spokesman for the umbrella National Coalition for a Democratic Constitution, which has been leading the antigovernment protests for the last two weeks.
At the same time, the deep wells of suspicion and fear of the military-backed regime is tempering hopes.
``Even if I feel sort of relieved about the acceptance by the government of the summit [with opposition leaders], I am still suspicious of the government, if their intentions are really sincere,'' said Koh Han Kyu, an organizer of the Human Rights Committee of the Korean national Presbyterian Church. ``What is important is what the government will actually do.
This week promises to be a crucial time in the political crisis that has been sweeping across South Korea. On both sides - government and opposition - the ability to compromise is being tested.
The possibility of a Chun-opposition ``summit'' is linked in minds of many Korean with the arrival here today of United States Assistant Secretary of State Gaston Sigur. US pressure for a resumption of political dialogue may have encouraged this latest move.
The announcement of Mr. Chun's gesture was made by Roh Tae Woo, the chairman of the ruling Democratic Justice Party and Chun's anointed successor. Mr. Roh said Chun had accepted his proposal to meet with all political leaders, including Kim Young Sam, the president of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party.
Roh postponed a planned press conference at which he was expected to announce a plan for resuming discussion of constitutional reform. He reportedly hopes to unveil that plan in two to three days, possibly after the Kim-Chun meeting and Mr. Sigur's visit.
Roadblocks still exist that could foil the meeting. The opposition insists on two conditions:
The release of an estimated 500 to 600 political prisoners jailed since the demonstrations began on June 10.
The freeing of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung from house arrest.
On these issues, Roh said only that Chun had agreed to ``favorably consider'' the demands.
But opposition leaders are careful to stress that there is no clear evidence yet of the government's willingness to compromise on its determination to hold elections next February under the present Constitution.
The present system of indirect elections virtually guarantees the selection of Roh as president. The opposition is calling for the regime to repeal Chun's April 13 decision to suspend talks on a new constitution.
The events of the next couple of days, antigovernment organizers say, will determine whether the pace of demonstrations will continue to slow. There are plans for a major demonstration on Friday, but, says Mr. In, it could be postponed if the meeting goes ahead, and produces clear results.
While these tentative steps took place in the light of a relatively quiet day in the capital, the government showed a stronger hand after nightfall.
Wafts of the potent tear gas employed by Korean police drifted through the downtown areas as small groups of demonstrators were routed. (Earlier, some 20,000 student protesters clashed with police on 58 college campuses across the country, according to press reports.)
The most serious clash in Seoul took place in front of Saemoonan Presbyterian Church, where an estimated 5,000 antigovernment demonstrators had gathered.
The crowd was almost entirely made up of middle-class Koreans, older women, men in business suits, and pastors. Holding crosses and candles, the church members tried to hold a candlelight march.
Riot police moved to pen them in on the street in front of the church. In a spirit of nonviolence, the protesters sat down on the four-lane boulevard.
``In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus,'' they sang, ``we will achieve victory.'' Crowds of spectators applauded. Then, with a loud crack, volleys of tear gas grenades exploded amid the sit-in, scattering the peaceful protesters.
The riot police pressed them back into the church compound. Behind them rushed the most-feared special police squads, dressed in civilian clothes and trained in martial arts.
As protesters scattered, these men grabbed individuals, brutally kicking and beating them without provocation. As they assaulted one man on the street only a few feet from this reporter, a middle-aged woman screamed, ``Why do you hit him? Hit Chun Doo Hwan instead.''