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Koreans Wear Surgical Masks, Plastic Wrap to Block Tear Gas

June 27, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — Businessmen in expensive silk suits rushed home from their offices Friday evening with Saran Wrap plastered over their eyes.

Enterprising street vendors introduced a new product for the occasion, a powder-blue surgical mask that was quickly sold out to the office clerks and bank tellers fighting their way out of downtown Seoul, drenched in pepper gas.

Most of the other millions of South Koreans who work in Seoul simply cried, choked and sneezed their way through what must rank among the worst tear-gas sieges in the city's history.

When darkness finally fell, downtown Seoul was deserted. Usually bustling with Friday night shoppers and people out for a night on the town, it looked like a ghost town. Many hours after the police had saturated the city with the contents of thousands of tear-gas grenades and canisters, no one could venture into a downtown street without suffering burning eyes and nasal passages and choking on the fumes in the air.

The only real defense against the gas--a chemical-based pepper gas--is a military gas mask. Masks are worn by the hundreds of foreign journalists who have been covering the unrest in Seoul. With their faces hidden, reporters and photographers have been wearing armbands to identify themselves as journalists and give the names of their organizations.

The city's deluxe hotels, all in the urban war zone, have taken to handing out dampened face cloths to guests at the check-in counter.

South Korean law does not allow civilians to own gas masks, so few of Seoul's commuters were as well prepared as the foreign press for Friday's gassing.

"Hey you," a businessman shouted to a group of riot police seconds after a tear-gas grenade fell near him. "Why are you guys shooting tear gas made of the people's sweat and blood?"

Another was hit in the head with a gas canister as he tried to move past a group of demonstrating students. Blood was spattered over his clothing, and he was helped to leave the area--not to a hospital but to the nearby headquarters of the political opposition.

A man in a business suit who was almost hit by a gas canister wheeled and shouted at the police: "Why are you shooting tear gas? Come and kill me instead!" Then, with tears streaming from his eyes, the man simply sat down in the street, but the police never approached him.

The people of Seoul may have set some kind of mark Friday for creativity in coping with the gas. Besides the plastic wrap and the surgical masks, there were people in diving masks and goggles. Many carried handkerchiefs smeared with toothpaste.

An elderly woman wrapped her entire head in plastic, leaving only a tiny hole for her mouth. A street-corner news vendor had placed an electric fan inches away from his face to blow away the fumes.

Human kindness was much in evidence. Several shopkeepers ran garden hoses out to the sidewalk, where passing commuters could stop to soak their burning faces. And several teams of medics roamed the streets with bottles containing a solution that apparently provided even more relief.

Most striking of all, perhaps, was the seeming nonchalance and stoicism with which so many people, in obvious discomfort, simply took it all in stride. They steeled themselves to the fumes, waited agonizing minutes for buses and trains, drove through traffic snarls with handkerchiefs over their mouths and walked block after block with bleary-eyed determination.

At the downtown hotels, doormen in fancy uniforms and top hats calmly opened doors for guests. Now and then one would pick up a garden hose and wash the gas residue from the hotel entrance.

Not even the police were exempt from the gas. During lulls, they paused to eat. They had to remove their helmets and masks, and several seemed to be in almost as much discomfort as the public, tears pouring down as they munched on sandwiches and waited for new orders to action.

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