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Student Protests Expand in Seoul : Police Attacked, Square Seized as Tens of Thousands March Against Regime

June 19, 1987|SAM JAMESON | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — Tens of thousands of student protesters, cheered on by office workers and pedestrians, marched through the streets here Thursday chanting, "Destroy the dictatorship!" and "Revise the constitution!" in the greatest outpouring yet of anti-government sentiment.

Over a three-mile area, students battled an estimated 20,000 police with firebombs and rocks, smashing the windows of police vans and setting fire to at least two police vehicles. Three police substations were attacked and two were ransacked.

In one dramatic incident, students overwhelmed about 80 riot policemen and briefly seized the main square facing the Bank of Korea in the heart of Seoul. The policemen, who had run out of tear gas, were surrounded by demonstrators. The students snatched the officers' helmets, shields and gas masks and made two bonfires of the equipment, sending black smoke billowing into the sky.

Police Beaten, Kicked

Some of the disarmed officers begged for mercy as they were beaten and kicked. Others sought shelter in a fountain and got drenched. Student leaders finally restored calm, and the frightened policemen were led back to their lines through the milling demonstrators. Some of the students and policemen shook hands as they parted.

Other violent clashes were reported in the cities of Pusan, Inchon, Taegu, Masan, Taejon and Wonju. Protesters in Wonju, southeast of Seoul, captured the municipal police chief and beat him, then set him free.

Opposition groups had billed Thursday as "Anti-Tear Gas Day" and demanded that the authorities stop using the powerful irritant to suppress political dissent. "Expel tear gas from our land," many of the protesters chanted.

But the police, who do not carry guns, fired thousands of tear gas canisters at the crowds; the demonstrators, seemingly undeterred, stood their ground and fought back.

In terms of scope and emotional intensity, the disturbance in Seoul was the worst since the current round of protests against the government of President Chun Doo Hwan began on June 10. That was the day former Gen. Chun's ruling Democratic Justice Party nominated Roh Tae Woo, its chairman and Chun's handpicked successor, as its candidate to succeed Chun in February.

Not a Direct Election

The election, to take place later this year, is not to be a direct election. The president is to be chosen by an electoral college, and many South Koreans are convinced that the indirect election will guarantee a continuation of what they regard as military rule. Roh, also a former general, helped put Chun in power seven years ago in a coup.

The disturbances of June 10 were generally limited to a square-mile area of central Seoul around the Myongdong Roman Catholic Cathedral, but Thursday's demonstrations extended across a broad expanse, from the vicinity of Seoul Central Railway Station to the East Gate Market.

Disturbances also erupted in and near the City Hall Plaza, where visiting foreign officials are often received.

The protests began about 4 p.m. and did not taper off until seven hours later, shortly before bus and subway service was suspended for the night. Activity in the center of Seoul was seriously disrupted for more than four hours. Auto traffic was paralyzed on many main arteries, as demonstrators seized streets and freeway overpasses.

The turmoil ended a two-day lull in this capital of 10 million people and mocked government attempts to defuse student protests by closing 36 college campuses ahead of schedule and before final examinations.

Police said 1,032 demonstrators were arrested Thursday in 10 cities, while 621 policemen were injured, the Associated Press reported. No figures were given on injuries to demonstrators.

The focal points for Thursday's activity were rallies scheduled at two churches to protest police use of pepper gas, a virulent and powdery form of tear gas that causes temporary blindness and a burning sensation on the skin.

Student Brain Dead

National police headquarters issued a statement Thursday saying that officers have been instructed not to fire gas canisters directly at protesters, but to aim at a point 30 feet over their heads. Last week, such a canister hit a university student in the head, causing injuries that left him in a coma. He has been declared brain dead but has not been removed from a respirator.

The police statement defended the use of pepper gas as "a harmless, defensive tool" necessary to avert worse confrontations.

As soon as the Korea National Council of Women and the new National Coalition for a Democratic Constitution, an alliance of opposition politicians, churchmen and dissidents, announced plans for the separate rallies, Chun's government banned them. But the protesters paid no heed.

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