The Guest Column

22nd September 1996

Rebel of the conscience

by Stanley Kalpage

Student activism in South Korea, dormant for some time, has returned once again. Pro-North Korean student radicals barricaded themselves inside Yongsei University in Seoul. The police stormed the campus and more than 5000 students were arrested. Demonstrations of this nature usually occur around August 15 , which is National Liberation Day.

The student demonstrations this year were organised by the Hangchongnyon, the Korea Federation of University Student Councils, a leftist organisation. The students were agitating for reunification with the North.

The National Security Law forbids South Koreans from engaging in pro-North Korean activities. Even the opposition political parties agree on this and have issued statements condemning the action of the students. The public is not sympathetic to the radical students. Student activism for the unconditional reunification of the South with North Korea has lost its appeal. There may have been some support for student demands for the withdrawal of US troops or for the abolition of the National Security Act but not for reunification.

Strong leadership

In the course of a teaching assignment at a Korean university during the past year I spoke with several university students and academic staff about the salient factors which led to the widely recognised Korean economic miracle. The view invariably expressed was that the leadership of presidents Park Chung Hee (1963-79) and Chun Doo Hwan (1980-88) was primarily responsible for the dedicated national effort that propelled South Korea to economic growth in the decades of the sixties to the eighties.

These leaders, they said, may have been autocratic and repressive but they made the people to work with determination and with a sense of purpose in those critical years. And yet, one of these leaders, Chun Doon Hwan, along with is successor, Roh Tae Woo, have recently been tried and sentenced, at what has been called the trial of the century, for corruption and the massacre of over 200 students in a rebellion in Kwangju province in 1983.

Student activism

A noteworthy feature of the South Korean scene is the vigour and vigilance of the activist student movement. From 1910 to 1945 they were a force during the Japanese occupation. Students have been in the forefront of political agitation against governments since independence and have clashed violently from time to time with the police and the armed forces. In 1960 they brought down the presidency of Syngman Rhee.

During the rule of president Park Chung Hee, students were considered the conscience of the nation. In the 1983 struggles, which brought about the downfall of the then government, several students were killed. The president at that time, Chun Doo Hwan, was arrested last year and held in remand for several months pending the framing of charges. He has now been sentenced to death. Another ex-president, Roh Tae Woo, was also indicted for keeping an election Slush fund, a part of which he is alleged to have used for his own purposes.

South Koreans are very concerned about reunification of the two parts of their divided country. They are vehemently anti-communist and are suspicious of the motivations and designs of the communist regime in the North but, nonetheless, they would like to see their country unified as soon as possible. The government of South Korea takes stringent measures about infiltration from the North; military personnel at security checkpoints stop and inspect vehicles particularly on the roads which lead to the 38th parallel dividing the North and the South.

In 1988, Kim Il Sung signalled a marked change in policy towards North-South relations by announcing his acceptance of the principle of peaceful co-existence. The South Korean government had recognised the need for this principle as far back as June 1973 when President Park Chung Hee proposed that North and South Korea be simultaneously admitted to the United Nations.

Dramatic developments took place during 1989. For the first time, a reporter from the Korea Daily began filing reports from Pyongyong. Following the end of the cold war and the death of Kim Il Sung, new initiatives have been launched towards re-unification. President Kim Young Sam has spelt out the basic philosophy behind South Korea's newly defined policy of working towards a single nation state based on the values of freedom, democracy and public welfare.

He has said that unification should be achieved on a gradual and step by step basis. First, the removal of hostility and distrust followed by the building of a single socio-economic community. The final phase would be the full integration of the North and the South into a single nation state.

On the move

South Korea's international stature is rising due to its remarkable economic achievement and growing national strength. In 1995, just four years after admission to the United Nations, South Korea has secured one of the prestigious and much sought after non-permanent seats in the Security Council.

Korea was once called the Hermit kingdom, but this epithet no longer applies. She will be a force to be reckoned with not only among the countries of the Pacific Rim but also in the rest of the world as well. Korean student activism is not directed towards preventing this.

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