Koreans braced for brutal backlash: Americans are warned to lie low
The Times, June 21 1987, Sunday
South Korea’s leaders were still considering imposing emergency measures yesterday, including a limited form of martial law, after 10 days of the most serious civil disturbances for years.
After students had commandeered a bus and rammed it at police lines on Friday, killing one policeman, it became clear that attempts to dampen anti-government sentiments were failing. For the first time, Buddhist demonstrators took to the streets in solidarity with the students.
Throughout the week support for the student revolt has steadily widened as members of the middle class, including bankers, businessmen and office workers, joined the demonstrations against the Chun regime.
All this intensified the challenge to President Chun Doo Hwan. Further clashes in the streets of Seoul this week will almost certainly trigger some form of military backlash.
The violent events in Seoul are of great strategic importance in the region. A stable South Korea is crucial to American interests in the Pacific. Throughout yesterday the American Armed Forces Network radio broadcast sombre warnings to Americans to exercise caution and to avoid large public gatherings and areas of demonstration. America has 40,000 troops in South Korea - a presence the Chun government regards as vital to the country’s survival but which many people resent.
As the disturbances have grown more violent, the cheerful people of Seoul have grown accustomed to the daily spectacle of police in Darth Vader-like helmets battling with massed formations of students, calling for the president’s resignation and the introduction of direct elections. Many demonstrators carry surgical masks to cover their faces.
The widespread use of tear-gas by the police has exacerbated anti-government feeling. It stings the eyes and burns the lungs and in some places of Seoul where it has been heavily used, even the trees and bushes are withering. Yesterday, even after the streets had been hosed down with water in an attempt to wash away the gas, the smell lingered in the air.
The riots have led to a flourishing market in gas masks. But veteran student radicals prefer to smear toothpaste under their eyes. They say this reduces the sting. When rocks and petrol bombs are flying at police ranks from student lines, the students rightly fear that anyone with a gas mask will be a target for arrest.
After the huge demonstrations on Thursday, the hardliners in South Korea’s authoritarian regime pressed for emergency measures to end the civil unrest, but they were overruled by Chun.
The former army general who has ruled South Korea with an iron hand since 1980 is acutely worried by the effect martial law would have on American political opinion and on the 1988 Olympic games.
South Korea, a country with a wonderful economic record (boasting an average 9% growth for the past 20 years) but with a poor human-rights reputation, has staked its international standing on successfully staging the games in September next year. With the critical eyes of the world turned on his country, Chun knows that he has a narrow field for manoeuvre.
But after Thursday’s protest Chun looked as if he might have to yield to the hardliners. Remaining, as usual, out of sight at his heavily guarded home in Seoul, known as the Blue House, he ordered the prime minister, Lee Han Key, to give a television address on Friday in which he pointedly threatened that the government would take ‘extraordinary steps’ if the turmoil continued.
Within hours of the warning, however, the first policeman to be killed in the violence was hit by a student-driven bus at Taejon. The riot police, who say they have used only tear-gas, not fire-arms, against the demonstrators, were furious.
So far, however, there has been only one other fatality. A 20-year-old student who was hit on the head by a tear-gas grenade is brain-dead in hospital. In a cynical attempt to avert more anti-government protests, the authorities have put him on a life-support machine which will be switched off only when the agitation has died down.
The government’s threat to impose martial law prompted President Reagan to send Chun a personal letter urging him to exercise restraint. Informed opinion in Seoul says the government is now considering introducing ‘garrison law,’ a reduced form of martial law.
This week could thus be the turning point in South Korea’s deepening political crisis. It arose because of Chun’s refusal to bow to opposition demands for a direct election later this year to choose his successor, and his ban on talks on constitutional reforms until the Olympics are over.
South Korea has 1m students (a higher percentage of Koreans enjoy higher education than Britons), and they have played a central role in the country’s politics for decades. The universities headed the resistance against 35 years of Japanese colonial rule. Student protests were responsible for toppling the president in 1960 and in 1980 they were behind a civilian revolt in the southern city of Kwangju.
But never before have the students of South Korea had such leverage over their government to get what they wanted. They know that as the deadline of the Olympics approaches, Chun or his designated successor, Roh Tae Woo, will be more reluctant to use force and repression.
Already there have been two ugly examples of what can occur if South Korea’s violent politics spills over into international sports. A football match between a South Korean team and a side of American Olympics hopefuls was halted last week when spectators rioted as tear-gas from a nearby university campus swirled into the stadium. Earlier, Egypt’s national team playing a tournament at Masan fled retching from the pitch when they were overcome by gas used against anti-government demonstrators outside.
In its 39-year history, South Korea has never managed a peaceful transition of power.
Chun’s decision to step down next year would break this violent mould. But his ‘irrevocable’ decision to rule out the direct presidential election demanded by the opposition, and the designation of Roh, another former general, as his successor, looks like turning out to be a recipe for chaos.