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COLUMN ONE : Sparing the Rod in S. Korea : Once widely accepted in the military, prisons and schools, the use of violent punishment faces rising challenges. Institutions that once ruled unchecked are heeding the groundswell of protest.

August 30, 1994|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Hong Doo Seung and Kim Keun Tae were both intimate participants in South Korea's long legacy of institutional violence. Hong freely admits he beat enlisted men with rifle butts and canes when he was an officer in the all-powerful South Korean military, which ruled the nation until the democratic election of 1987.

Kim, a labor activist, suffered such excruciating electric shocks that his throat swelled from his screams as he reached the brink of death under police torture in 1985.

Today, however, both victim and perpetrator agree that South Korea's new civilian government, inaugurated last year by former dissident Kim Young Sam, is producing a striking reform: a significant reduction in violence as a means of social control.

Once omnipresent among the military and police, in the legal system, the schools and at home, beatings and other physical forms of coercion are being firmly rejected by a growing number of South Koreans. In a measure of the strides made by this newly democratic nation, everyone from soldiers to parents is speaking out against the use of force--and the protests are being heeded by the institutions that once ruled unchecked.

"The public's general consciousness is being raised very fast. People think of themselves as independent human beings with a right to be treated with respect rather than in a brutal, authoritarian way," said Han Sang Jin, a Seoul National University sociologist. "In families, schools, the government bureaucracy and even the military barracks, the use of violence is encountering many forms of resistance."

Violence as a means of social control is hardly unique to South Korea; it is a hallmark of most authoritarian or military regimes. South Koreans commonly blame their former Japanese colonial masters for teaching them the tools of terror, particularly in the military and among police. Whatever the origin, the nation's pointed attempt to distance itself from its legacy of brutal suppression is producing startling changes.

Military officers who used to routinely resort to violence for discipline are being ordered to use detention or grueling training drills instead--and are being swiftly punished when they violate that policy. At the same time, more enlisted men are speaking out against the assaults, encouraged by top brass to register complaints in regular reporting sessions.

Police, prosecutors and prison guards are similarly refraining from violence as a means of extracting confessions or controlling inmates, said labor activist Kim, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award for publicizing his ordeal. Schools, which have long used corporal punishment, are curtailing the practice in the face of growing parental protests, according to authorities.

And even in the home, the pervasive practice of wife-beating--long regarded as strictly a private matter--is being openly aired as a pressing social problem. Last month, South Korean TV viewers were given an unprecedented look at the once-taboo issue when a popular talk show featured one victim and her case, along with lawyers and scholars who discussed it.

No presidential decree or government campaign inaugurated the trend against institutional violence. Rather, the shift appears to be a natural result of "an individual awakening and a social mood that will no longer allow this kind of thing to happen," Hong said.

That shift began after the 1987 presidential election of Roh Tae Woo ended three decades of authoritarian rule, but has accelerated under the Kim government, analysts say.

The nation's newfound democracy and a greater appreciation for human rights are not the only reasons violence is on the wane. The shrinking size of Korean families--from an average of six children in 1960 to 1.7 in 1993--has made parents more protective of their offspring, officials say.

In this Confucian society, where the eldest son represents the continuation of a family's lineage, many will no longer tolerate their children's welfare being jeopardized by military officers, police or teachers, they say.

South Korea's rising affluence and education levels--as well as Western encroachment on traditional Confucian teachings to honor superiors--are also instilling a greater resistance to violence, officials say. Choi Joon In, a Board of Education official in Seoul's southern district, said the growing ranks of professional parents, who are more educated than many teachers, are the most vocal in their protests.

"They don't ask their children why they were beaten. They simply get angry and abuse teachers with harsh language," Choi said. "They believe anything their child did was right and the teacher was wrong."

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