S. Korean radicals: lying low, rallying forces. Radical students in South Korea have grudgingly accepted presidential victory of Roh Tae Woo. Despite dampened spirits, activists are focusing on April parliamentary elections, where they hope for a strong showing by the opposition.
Seoul — After the heady days of revolt last June, a mood of depression has settled over South Korea's student activists. Last month only a handful of activists, 30 at most, turned out at a Seoul university to protest the inauguration of Korea's new President. The portable loudspeakers at the top of the university library steps blared out the message. ``Unite to resist the succession of Roh Tae Woo!''
South Korea's vibrant student movement led a revolt of millions against the military-backed government of Chun Doo Hwan. Against all expectations, they won their demand for free, direct elections of the president.
Tens of thousands of students were mobilized during the election campaign to organize for the opposition and to monitor polling to ensure a fair vote.
But their expectations were dashed when the opposition split and the government won a minority victory. Many charged fraud, but few had the heart to return again to the streets.
``I am very interested in politics,'' said one Seoul activist, a student at a Catholic medical college. ``But after the election, my energies are drained. When Roh comes on the television, I only think that I will have to watch him for five years.''
President Roh has impressed many Koreans with the egalitarian imagery of his new government, appealing to the ``ordinary people'' and eschewing the imperial trappings of power that Mr. Chun wrapped himself in.
Roh has been critical of the actions of his predecessor, of restrictions on political freedom and abuses of power. The middle class, key allies of the students last summer, seems willing to give Roh a chance to prove he is really different.
Yet students still remain largely skeptical.
``I feel Roh is not really admitting the mistakes that were committed in the past by the military,'' said a classmate of the medical student.
``He's making conciliatory gestures by partially revealing their wrongdoings. ...They are cosmetic changes.''
The movement, according to several sources inside its secretive and radical leadership, has two opinions about the changes since June. More hard-line elements hold that they are totally superficial. The other view, says one proponent, is ``there is a real, qualitative change. The question is whether it lasts or is temporary.''
``I feel it is here to stay,'' the graduate student explained in a dark coffee shop near Seoul's prestigious Yonsei University, ``because first of all Korea enjoys economic stability. Even though there was fraud, the Roh administration was elected through a legitimate election. They know that political consciousness is higher and people will not stand for the kind of oppression they used to receive.''
The leadership has grudgingly accepted Roh's victory as fact. Its focus now is on marshaling a strong opposition force in the upcoming parliamentary elections in April. They are demanding that the opposition unite on a single list of candidates.
``This is a critical juncture,'' declared the Yonsei student council in a wall-poster broadside, ``... to come out with a democratic parliament to isolate the Roh regime.''
At the same time, they are eagerly seeking allies outside the campus - not among the middle class but among farmers and industrial workers.
The growing anti-Americanism of the student movement, they hope, gives them common ground with farmers who have taken to the streets themselves in recent months to protest American pressure to open up Korea's market to beef and other agricultural imports.
The Roh government, the student statement accused, ``has threatened the lives of farmers by importing imperialist American products.''
The students also declared their solidarity with the labor movement which is preparing for its traditional March-April spring contract negotiations.
Last summer, taking off from the June popular uprising, workers staged a massive, nationwide strike wave demanding higher wages and the right to form trade unions.
The government and employers expect a similar, though less intense, period of labor disputes in the next several months.
The labor movement has long been a target of the students, especially the left-wing elements who avow a Marxist goal of creating a class movement.
In many cases during last summer's labor uprising, the strikes were led by what authorities call ``disguised workers,'' young activists who conceal their backgrounds and go to work in factories.
April is also the time when student protests tend to be on the rise, after the campuses reopen after a long mid-term break and Korea's bitter winter cold has disappeared.
The possible convergence of student and labor protest, along with the National Assembly elections, worries the government. For this reason, according to reports in the Korean media, the ruling party hopes to hold the elections as early in April as possible.
Student activism has a long and honored history in South Korea, from the days of struggle against Japanese colonialism to the overthrow of the unpopular Syngman Rhee regime in 1960 and the long resistance to the military-dominated governments there after.
If the students are given an opportunity, through the government's failure to advance along its proclaimed road of democratization, analysts agree they will be ready to seize the moment.
``The government wrongdoings are bound to surface,'' one of the medical students confidently predicted. ``Until then I will wait.''