(25) Student protesters led democracy movement
By Michael Breen
In the authoritarian period between the Korean War and the election of Roh Tae-woo in 1987, South Korea’s political leaders refused, or perhaps were unable, to accept and honor the idea that political opponents could be loyal to the state.
An opposition party was tolerated to a point because the country was aping American democracy, but those in power were always tempted to interpret threats to their own position as threats to the country itself.
Thus the first dictator, Syngman Rhee, executed an opposition leader for suggesting North-South talks; Park Chung-hee smeared Jeffersonian democrats like Kim Dae-jung as communists; Chun Doo-hwan blacklisted even conservative political figures while co-opting politicians into a formal opposition group (dismissed as “opposition by day, ruling party by night”).
Given these limitations, society looked elsewhere for a way to express its opposition to the dictators: university campuses. Protesting against the regime in power in the 1970s and ’80s became almost de rigueur for students. With some exceptions — notably, students expelled from Seoul National University in the 1960s — students had little to lose.
The system conspired to help those who spent most of their time engaged in protests to get their degrees. Many were detained but few were charged and sentenced.
Importantly, campus activism became a breeding ground for future politicians. There was a steady flow of student demonstrators into the National Assembly from the start. Lee Chul-seung, a rightist student activist in the 1940s, was an opposition faction leader with Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung in the ’70s.
One of the advantages of being a student politician is that you can adopt foolish positions and not be held accountable later. Examples: the current President, Lee Myung-bak, served three months of a three-year sentence in 1965 for protesting normalization of relations with Japan (the crime: “plotting insurrection”). Kim Geun-tae, a prominent politician who died last year, was among the student organizers in the 1980s who stepped up the level of violence at protests. Im Jeong-seok, the new secretary-general of the Democratic United Party, was a student leader who dispatched a fellow student, Im Soo-kyung on a high-profile and illegal visit to North Korea in 1989. When he was a student, Lee Kwang-jae, one of former President Roh Moo-hyun’s right-hand men, was a member of the pro-North Korean “Jusapa” group. Shin Ji-ho, a Grand National Party member and prominent New Right figure, was also in an underground communist group.
But it was the relentless protests through the 1980s against the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan that made the student protestors famous around the world. In those days, the smell of tear-gas hung almost permanently over the major campuses and riot police were a permanent feature outside major university campuses.
In contrast to an earlier generation of student activists, campus protest leaders had turned left and some openly advocated a socialist revolution. The thrill of this energized thousands of young men and women.
Some protests escalated into massive events. Once at Sungkyunkwan University, students declared some buildings a “liberated zone” which led to a protracted stand-off with police. At Konkuk University in Seoul, 1,400 students were detained with 34 jailed under national security laws, after a siege. In 1985, students stunned the country by invading and occupying the American Cultural Center library in Seoul. American diplomats would not permit riot police to remove the students by force, and international TV cameras set up across the street by the Lotte Hotel for three days.
But despite their zeal, the students were remarkably ineffective. That was because their cause of socialist revolution was anachronistic. The people wanted their economic growth underpinned by democracy, not by a new form of dictatorship.
Popular expectation fell on the shoulders of the civilian opposition led by Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. But here, too, there was frustration. The ruling party in the National Assembly had agreed to the opposition’s demand for talks on constitutional change to allow for more democracy, but with its majority, was not required to concede on anything and certainly not to permit a popular vote to elect Chun’s successor at the end of his 7-year term.
To create the necessary power shift to force change, the opposition had to use other means. They took to the streets. But these protests, which students turned into major confrontations with police, were also ineffective. Parents tried to persuade their children not to protest but citizens on the whole did not complain because the protestors were seen to have a certain moral high ground.
Although protests appeared violent, with stones and Molotov cocktails flying in one direction and tear gas canisters in the other, no one was trying to kill anyone. So when Park Jong-chul, a 21-year-old Seoul National University linguistics student, died in January 1987 as police were dunking his head in a bathtub, Chun’s government stepped over a line in the sand and earned itself a new enemy. After years of indifference to student demonstrations and opposition party antics, the mothers of Korean students now let their voice be heard. And in their wake came religious leaders, office workers and ordinary people previously uninterested in politics.
The denouement began in April that year, when Chun announced that talks on constitutional change, which the opposition parties were boycotting, were canceled. He said that any further discussion would threaten the peaceful transfer of power at the end of his term in 1988 and the Olympic Games later in the same year.
The country went quiet and then on June 10 when the ruling Democratic Justice Party held an event to nominate another retired general, Chun’s fellow coup-maker Roh Tae-woo, as their candidate for the December election, an organization of religious leaders and dissidents called for protests.
In contrast to the stone-throwing of the students, the signal of discontent the religious leaders requested was something that could involve the people who were usually the annoyed victims of street protests — commuters on their way home. At 6 p.m. that night, June 10, 1987, drivers were asked to honk their horns.
Thus the middle class stepped in and drove what became Korea’s democratic revolution. After three weeks of street warfare around the country, Chun and Roh gave in and allowed democratic elections. And that success explains why even today outside local government offices all over the country, people are still protesting.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.