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S. Korea's Disciplined Combat Police Take Hard Line Against Protesters

May 10, 1987|JOHN BURGESS | The Washington Post

SEOUL, South Korea — With a barrage of tear gas and a formation charge reminiscent of an 18th-Century battlefield, South Korean riot police routed about 1,000 students staging a violent street protest and bundled many of them off to jail.

The operation was over in an hour. Stripping gas masks off, weary police boarded buses for their barracks as the sun set on a pleasant spring Sunday recently. Soon the neighborhood's usual cars and strollers were back.

The clash had an unusually high level of violence and arrests. For the most part, however, it was a routine mission for the South Korean chunkyung, or combat police.

Street protests can occur daily in this country. Though they are usually small, the government treats each as a grave threat to public order and sends the combat police, usually in two to three times the demonstrators' numbers. Dissidents say this guarantees that violence will occur.

Military Force

For all practical purposes, these police are a military force. They wear bulky military fatigues. Standard-issue equipment is a helmet with neck protector, a shield, club, gas mask and tennis-ball-sized gas grenades.

They do not carry guns, nor do even the most extreme dissidents. This unwritten agreement on weaponry is an important reason that South Korean protests, no matter how tumultuous they may be, almost never result in deaths.

Backing the men in uniform are a roughly equal number of plainclothes policemen.

Young men can fulfill their military obligations through service in the combat police. Because they are stationed in cities rather than in the cold and lonely outposts that face Communist North Korea, many prefer combat-police duty to the army. Some of the police, in fact, are university graduates facing former classmates.

Tight Discipline

Discipline is extremely tight. Recruits are trained never to respond to taunts or rock-throwing from demonstrators until they receive the command to attack. As a rule, they comply. Brutality after arrests can be another matter.

Sometimes the police use psychological tactics. Phalanxes advancing with boots stamping on the pavement can panic a crowd. So can a charge with each man shrieking a sort of Indian war cry. But usually they use gas.

They show no apparent concern for its effects on passers-by. Recently they gassed demonstrators in front of the Chosun Hotel, one of Seoul's premier hotels, setting guests inside gasping for breath.

Citizens often show little concern even if police and demonstrators are playing cat and mouse on the sidewalks among them. Not long ago gas spread through the interior of the Lotte Department Store. People put handkerchiefs over their mouths and went on shopping.

Annual Event

If the demonstrators are politicians or clergymen, the first violence usually comes from the police. With radical students, however, it is usually the opposite.

The recent Sunday protest was an annual event, commemorating the April 19, 1960, uprising in Seoul that overthrew the government of President Syngman Rhee. The demonstrations are held at a special cemetery outside Seoul, where more than 200 students and civilians who died in the fighting are buried.

By 10 Sunday morning this April, at least 42 busloads of police were deployed around the cemetery and waiting. They were backed by eight or more armored riot vehicles topped by water or gas canister cannons and police jeeps.

Shortly before 2 p.m., several thousand students began a militant rally inside the cemetery. Speakers urged action against President Chun Doo Hwan. People unfurled banners and chanted such slogans as "Down with military dictatorship" and "Achieve democracy through struggle."

No Police Interference

The police did not interfere. They were getting ready for the rally's aftermath. By 4 p.m., it was clear what was going to happen. Young couples and others with no interest in the impending fight began streaming from the cemetery, passing through the police lines.

With the battlefield now cleared, about 1,000 radicals made their exit into the street, holding banners and chanting anti-government slogans. About 100 yards from the police line, they stopped and prepared weapons, some smashing cement sidewalk tiles and others bringing out wooden clubs. Several minutes later, the fight was on as about 50 students charged at the police, pelting them with rocks.

In seconds the counterattack came. From an armored vehicle behind the police ranks, a device similar to a Gatling gun lobbed dozens of gas grenades. Riflemen fired more grenades.

With extraordinary precision, the police began advancing up the street at a trot. From a hiding place in a side alley, a contingent of denim-suited plainclothesmen, masks and helmets on, sprinted into the fray.

Students in Panic

The students fell back in panic through the gas, which had become too thick to see through. Some stumbled. Others fled into the narrow streets of an adjacent residential neighborhood.

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