SEOUL, South Korea — The government Sunday night lifted a five-day police cordon around the Myongdong Cathedral and told protesting students they were free to leave.
No official explanation of the move was made. Authorities earlier had described the sit-in as "endangering the very basis of the state" and had indirectly threatened to impose martial law.
About 250 students, the remnants of a force that numbered 1,000 at its peak, remained inside the cathedral's grounds early today after failing to reach a decision during a nightlong debate on what they should do next.
Father Francis Kim said government representatives met church officials Sunday and informed them that police would be withdrawn. Church officials, Kim said, were asked to persuade the students to go home, hopefully by today. The priest added that no deadline was set for the students to leave.
Fled Riot Police
The sit-in began spontaneously Wednesday as youths fled riot police attempting to suppress nationwide rallies protesting the torture death of a jailed Seoul National University student in January and the ruling Democratic Justice Party's nomination Wednesday of its chairman, Roh Tae Woo, as its candidate to succeed President Chun Doo Hwan in this year's presidential election.
After the police withdrew, student leaders debated what action they should take, while other young people congregated in small circles, holding discussions and singing songs. Students said they were advised that the government was offering them free passage to depart as well as a promise of immunity from future prosecution, with no time limits fixed. They remained skeptical, however.
Starting today, "the area will be filled with plainclothesmen instead of police," one student said.
4 Days of Protests
The sit-in at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in South Korea drew support for the students from priests and nuns and inspired bands of other students to stage four consecutive days of protest demonstrations on the streets surrounding the cathedral. Volleys of pepper gas--a virulent form of tear gas--fired by police to disperse the demonstrators provoked widespread condemnation from merchants, shoppers, commuters and pedestrians.
Although he made no public comment and refrained from delivering a sermon Sunday, Cardinal Stephen Kim, whose residence is inside the cathedral compound, toured the area several times, chatting with students, nuns and priests.
Priests offered open support to the students Friday in an exchange for a pledge of nonviolence and urged police to let the students go. At that time, however, their plea was rejected.
Nuns Offer Support
On Friday night, after Information and Culture Minister Lee Woong Hee issued a bristling warning of stern punishment and fears grew that combat police would storm the cathedral, more than 500 nuns grouped themselves in front of the building where the students were staying to serve as human shields, according to Father John Daly, a Jesuit priest from Philo, Ill.
Sunday's surprise withdrawal of the police, who had cordoned off the entire Myongdong section of downtown Seoul, came after worshipers attending Mass congregated in the street in front of the cathedral and chanted anti-government slogans.
That show of public support for the demonstrators was one of many similar manifestations since Wednesday, when demonstrations erupted in 21 cities and nearly 4,000 people were detained by police. Order was quickly restored throughout this capital of 10 million people, except for the Myongdong area and on university campuses.
Father Daly said that merchants in the area donated food and clothing to the students, while a band of 73 squatter families volunteered to do the students' laundry and cook meals. Supplies and other material were passed over the wall, only 100 feet from a gate where police were posted. Students also passed in and out of the compound unfettered at that point, Daly added.
The squatter families, evicted by the government in one of more than 200 urban development projects around Seoul, were taken in by the cathedral in April, Daly said. The Jesuit priest, who has been working as a missionary in slum areas, has been living with the evicted squatters.
One group of riot police, Daly said, passed round "apple bombs" (tear-gas grenades) to the students in an expression of sympathy.
"They (the students in the cathedral) would have collapsed if they had not gotten that kind of response," Daly said.
No violence occurred at the church Sunday, but in the surrounding areas, bands of other students, for the fifth day, harassed police by staging sporadic demonstrations. Again, police responded by firing volleys of pepper gas.
Students interviewed inside the cathedral grounds during the night voiced no specific demands. Rather, one said that "we are laying everything on the line--including our lives--for freeing the political prisoners, a free press, direct election of the president and a new constitution."
Others said they wanted to drive from power the military clique that rules South Korea. Both Chun and his anointed successor, Roh, are former army generals.
Asked if they supported Kim Young Sam, president of the Reunification Democratic Party, and Kim Dae Jung, a driving force behind the party, the students said they consider the two established opposition leaders to be "conservative."
"We recognize them as leaders within the current political framework, but we are looking for a new framework, a new society," one student said.