DEMOCRACY has made strides in South Korea over the last three years. Elections have been held, the press is freer, criticism of government policy is common. But the gains haven't quieted the protests that rock the nation every spring. The protests have been virulent this spring, for reasons that aren't clear to even seasoned Korea-watchers. Student protests are an honored tradition in Korea. They've marked major transformations of Korean politics - not least the move from iron-fisted military rule in the south to democratic elections in 1987.
While students and police clash frequently, an implicit code of conduct has avoided death-dealing blows. That code broke down last month, when riot police beat to death a young protester, touching off mass demonstrations surrounding his funeral. Other students and young laborers have immolated themselves in protest.
The relative prosperity of South Korean society may itself be goading protest leaders to extraordinary tactics this year in hopes of rousing the public - so far, to no avail.
That doesn't mean that the average South Korean is happy with current policies. President Roh Tae Woo gets barely 10 percent support in polls. Corruption is a source of disgust, and environmental mishaps, such as a recent toxic spill at a government-supported factory, have added to discontent. Not least, the South Korean economy is sliding.
What can the government do? It could go further than it did recently to change the National Security Law that props up what's left of the old police state's sanctions on "antistate" activity. It could release political prisoners. It could practice less incendiary methods of dealing with protests than turning out legions of truncheon-swinging riot police who early this week fired live ammunition over the heads of students.
Under President Roh, South Korea has opened a dialogue with the rest of the world, including the Soviet Union and China. But Roh's biggest challenge is to civilize the dialogue at home.