SEOUL, South Korea — A South Korean university campus is a shifting scene of strolling students, soccer kick-arounds, political rallies and the lingering, acrid smell of tear gas. Since student demonstrators brought down the government of Syngman Rhee in 1960, political activism has been both tradition and obligation here, a rite of passage.
"You can't separate those two--national issues and student life," said a woman student at Seoul's Yonsei University.
A Restive Element
At Yonsei, Korea and Seoul National universities and more than 100 other campuses around the country, South Korea's million-plus college students are the most restive element on the political stage. The death of a Seoul National student under police torture galvanized anti-government demonstrators earlier this year, and President Chun Doo Hwan's subsequent cancellation of political talks on constitutional revision has heightened the protests.
Last week, anti-government students took their protests to the streets of Seoul, forming the bulwark of violent opposition demonstrations when the ruling Democratic Justice Party nominated Roh Tae Woo as its presidential candidate. Roh, who faces no rival, was thus effectively designated South Korea's next president.
Yonsei students were particularly agitated by the critical injury to a classmate in a campus rally Tuesday. He was hit in the head by a police tear-gas grenade and was in a coma.
Students somehow infiltrated downtown areas of the capital despite heavy police cordons. They swarmed the streets, sometimes snaking four abreast, arms around each others' shoulders and chanting anti-government slogans. It was a dangerous confrontation, far sharper than most university rallies. The demonstrators hurled rocks and firebombs, and the police answered with tear gas and clubs.
This spring, the focus of the demonstrations has been government repression and the opposition's demand for constitutional change, and the crowds have been larger than before. But with some exceptions, like the rioting of last week, the protests have been contained within the campus gates. The situation in Seoul so far bears little resemblance to Paris or Berkeley in the 1960s, despite the images of tear gas and truncheons.
Interviews with students on the hillside Yonsei campus revealed the dynamics of the university protest movement. They insisted on anonymity, a sign of their fear of police retribution.
"They (the police) sometimes know about a demonstration before we do," said one, explaining the widespread assumption among students that undercover police and informers are among them.
Another, conceding that she had no proof but speaking nonetheless with certainty, added: "There's supposed to be this big file. Anything you do, they put a mark by your name. Once you are elected (to a student organization) you go on the list. . . . You have to think of your family. It could affect them. The father, his promotion. . . ."
In May, Assistant Secretary of State Gaston J. Sigur declared at a House hearing in Washington that many of the more than 700 South Korean university professors who had signed statements calling for democratic reforms "were subjected to various pressures and punishments, including the denial of research funds, withholding of promotions and pressure to resign from administrative positions."
Sigur also said that, according to reliable critics, investigations of students and their organizations under the National Security Law were often "misused to suppress mere dissent."
With the exception of student council leaders, who run for office on a platform of national political issues, the organizers of campus protests in Seoul hide their identities, the Yonsei collegians agreed.
"It's all very hazy at the top," an upperclassman said. "Even we don't know."
'Tomatoes' and 'Apples'
"The core element is dogmatic, even quasi-revolutionary. . . . It would be very hard to placate them," a Western diplomat observed. The radicals, the diplomat said, are categorized by government agents as "tomatoes" and "apples": "The tomatoes are red throughout and the apples red only on the surface."
Anti-Americanism was the predominant theme of campus rallies in 1986. In the view of student radicals, a university professor pointed out, "the Republic of Korea itself, which was founded with American support, does not have legitimacy."
In interviews, government officials freely bandy the word communist and accuse student radicals of drawing inspiration from the propaganda radio of Communist North Korea. Merely listening to the broadcasts is a criminal offense here. But the government has not made a convincing case that student protests are directed by North Korean agents.