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Horrors of Death Not Forgotten : South Korea's Opposition Runs as Deep as the Scars

July 21, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — The occasion was a memorial service for students, laborers, farmers and dissidents who either committed suicide on principle or allegedly were killed for their political beliefs under the authoritarian regime of President Chun Doo Hwan.

On the surface, it appeared to be nothing more than a normal church service. But, as several hundred men and women filed into Seoul's Yongdong Presbyterian church recently, they paused outside to examine or buy booklets on sale that recounted stories of excruciating police torture, death in dingy prison cells and political zealots so overcome with frustration that they set themselves on fire and died.

And for the next three hours, they listened in silence to descriptions of the horrors of death and dying under the man who is still president of South Korea.

The church meeting was an example of how, more than three weeks after Chun's government electrified the nation by announcing an eight-point package of major democratic reforms to try to quell massive unrest, the popular dissent that forced Chun's move remains strong despite continuing government attempts to suppress it.

Standing at the pulpit in the Yongdong Church, Kim Soon Jeong hardly looked like a revolutionary.

Her age and her manner were distinctly middle-aged and middle-class. She wore a conservative pink blouse and designer-frame glasses that barely hid eyes filled with tears and anguish.

But for 20 minutes, the soft-spoken housewife used the pulpit to justify her 21-year-old son's horrible death. In April, 1986, Kim Se Jin doused himself with kerosene, set himself on fire and jumped from the roof of a three-story office building in a futile attempt to prevent Seoul's riot police from breaking up a student demonstration.

"Even now, when I am alone, I wonder, 'Should he have killed himself? Could he have done more if he had lived?' " Kim Soon Jeong told the several hundred worshipers and students who had gathered in the church on a recent night.

"But I answer in my mind that my son will live forever in the hearts of all peace-loving people of our country. Even now, I can meet my son in the streets among the students shouting for the end of this dictatorship. I can see among them my son's image."

Kim Soon Jeong could not have made her emotional comments on the streets of Seoul; not in a high-school gymnasium; not in the national press; not in a public meeting. She most certainly would have been arrested under laws that still ban public assembly for political purposes. And, like several dissidents who have been sentenced to jail since Chun agreed to a series of reforms, she also could have been imprisoned under the National Security Law.

Instead, Kim used the immunity and haven of the church to tell her story. And even then, three busloads of riot police were stationed less than a block away from the church, and undercover police stood near the entrance to the church's driveway.

Little Has Changed

"The government's control structure is all in place, as it always has been," noted one longtime American resident of Seoul in discussing how little has changed in recent weeks in what has long been considered an authoritarian state.

To be sure, Chun's government has tried to take a number of steps to try to show its good faith in what it calls "the long process of democratization."

The government has released 534 political prisoners and restored the civil rights of 2,335 others who had previously been in jail. It has pledged to restore the jobs of teachers who were fired for participating in anti-government rallies. It has promised to rewrite Chun's restrictive constitution and revise or abolish the country's restrictive press law. And it has urged the South Korean people to be patient.

But, after so many years of oppression under the rule of Chun and previous authoritarian rulers, few Koreans are willing to wait.

In the eyes of many Korean citizens, the announced reforms seem to be more rhetoric than substance. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail. The government has not even begun the process of abolishing or rewriting the press-censorship law. Every evening, newspaper editors still receive a set of government guidelines on how to play each of the day's important stories and pictures. And many citizens are begining to wonder whether last month's startling announcement was merely a clever ruse by a government trying to buy time.

In the absence of free speech, free press and free assembly, the legions of Korean dissidents, such as Kim Soon Jeong, have found methods both old and new to speak out against the government--sometimes using the very same institutions the government has used to stifle their criticism.

Government courtrooms, for example, recently have become virtual battlegrounds.

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