Korean Students' Moral Authority Challenged
SEOUL, South Korea -- Things are not going well for Ku Chang Chu, the student council president for Dongguk University.Here in the land of endless conflict, this post means more than just shadow-boxing with the university administration.It means in most cases being catapulted into national politics. And in Ku's case it means he has been on the run from the police for a couple of weeks. What got him into trouble is all those street protests you see on CNN, where students, led by the powerful Hanchongryon, the Korean All-University Association, hurl Molotov cocktails at police.This organization is the radical wing of a student movement as sharply polarized as the peninsula itself. Hanchongryon, as the Korean press quaintly puts it, "is trying to overthrow the democratically elected government.''Last week I saw Ku's face on a wanted poster. Police were offering 3 million won (about $5,000) for information leading to his arrest.But Ku, it turns out, was not crafty enough. A few days ago the police, carrying tennis rackets and dressed up as excessively preppie students, burst into the student government building and arrested him, along with a few others who, although they were not explicitly "wanted," had the poor judgment to be in the office at that moment.Jailed DissidentSo Ku is now in Seoul Prison, where he will in all likelihood remain for some time; he faces a minimum of a year and a half in jail and his trial is not scheduled for another three months. He will have company, though. There has been a general roundup of Hanchongryon leaders, and it is still going on.At least Ku won't have to implicate his superiors. The top leader himself, Kang Wee Won, was finally arrested last week, undone by his socialist sympathies. Kang was organizing a summer volunteer labour drive to help Korean farmers when the police caught up with him. Hanchongryon, it seems, does more than riot. Both Ku and Kang are charged with illegal assembly and breach of national security.What may prove more damaging is that the student association's main source of funding is now also in prison. A couple of weeks ago, the police arrested two leaders of a company called Hana; Duri for "breach of national security.'' The company, which makes regular donations to those running from police or already in jail, has six branches around Korea and makes money by selling wholesale stationery, clothing and souvenirs.What is so dangerous about Hanchongryon that the police are putting so much effort into hunting them down?I put this question to Ku a few days before police nabbed him. We are sitting in his office, where he will soon be arrested, a small room full of unmatched old furniture. Ku is unassuming, certainly not threatening, a smallish bespectacled fellow, quiet, terse and frustratingly dogmatic.He sits like a statue of Abraham Lincoln, his hands motionless and resolute on the arms of his chair, and speaks in the measured rhetorical cadence of all student/labour orators I have heard in Korea -- wave after wave of three-syllable patterns. It is usually hoarse and exhortatory. Today, however, Ku is calm and assured, if not particularly reflective.Speaking to me in words that when translated are difficult to quote verbatim in English, he says that Hanchongryon believes in three things: jaju, to be free from other countries' influence (notably the States'); minju, democracy -- although the Republic of Korea claims to be democratic, Hanchongryon makes a pretty good case that it isn't; and tong-il, reunification with North Korea.It is the third tenet that gets them into trouble. Under national security law, it is illegal to say flattering things about the enemy.If you endorse reunification you can be arrested at any time -- despite the fact that there is a government ministry of reunification, an inconsistency that does not appear to disturb the police.According to Amnesty International, between January and early July 1997 at least 290 people were arrested under this law.Raucous RallyIn a report issued last month, the organization charges the government with detaining people who pose merely an ideological rather than a physical threat to state security.But as Clare McVey at Amnesty's London office points out, the arrests take place in the context of a wave of violence perpetrated both by students and authorities. At least 240 students have been arrested on charges relating to unauthorized demonstrations and violence (some of these under the security law as well)."Amnesty International," the report says, "does not condone student violence but is concerned that the confrontation with Hanchongryon has led to a more general crackdown on students, resulting in the arrests of students for peaceful activities and on charges unrelated to the demonstrations."I'm standing in a chanting mob of Hanchongryon supporters. These same students will soon appear on international news programs throwing their rocks and Molotovs. Fires are burning, and the students are pumping their fists in the air, waving huge banners.I turn to the Nike-wearing student beside me and ask what they are protesting. "We hate capitalism!" he says.Later, when I ask Ku Chang Chu what it means to hate capitalism, he fumbles for an answer. My translator, Kim Ki Nam, remarks in an aside to me, "I think they have theoretical problems."Footwear ChoiceAnd they do, if the students' choice of footwear is any indication. "We can't reject capitalism entirely," says Ku.Things are even worse for Hanchongryon than the arrests and harassmens suggest -- the students' most dangerous enemy is indifference and irrelevance.The police have always harassed the organization. I have been told that they arrest students to prevent them from running in elections, or as soon as they've been elected, to keep them from actually doing anything. So this attention is nothing new.What is different is that no one seems to care. Historically, Hanchongryon -- or Chundaehyop, as it used to be called -- has been able to galvanize public opinion, or at least express it. Students fought -- and died -- bravely to bring democracy to a nation ruled by a military autocracy and to support labour against the oligarchy implemented by the generals.And so they enjoyed wide support. Workers would smuggle them food during protests and hide them from police afterward.But the Korean love affair with student activism seems to be ending. Newspaper editorials are calling Hanchongryon "obsolete" and a "nuisance." With an election called for the end of the year, politicians on all sides are cashing in on the anti-Hanchongryon sentiment.At the important level of student politics, the politicians have already acted. On the 26th of this month a new umbrella group is to be launched -- Saechonghyop, or New Students' Association. The organization already has the support of 37 universities, many of which have withdrawn from Hanchongryon. The critical point about Saechonghyop's policy is that it is to be nonviolent, reflecting the main complaint against Hanchongryon. It's true, the latter looks violent, particularly on television. Even up close they seem pretty menacing, with their flags and steel pipes and flaming bombs.But for a group supposedly committed to violence, they are strangely ineffectual. I have seen several riots and have even been hit with a stray rock. But I have never seen anyone seriously injured, neither a police officer nor a bystander.I have, on the other hand, seen a student get hurt. The police are by no means hesitant to throw rocks themselves, and since the students are not wearing riot gear, protest is far more dangerous for them than for the cops.Cops EverywhereBut neither side has much to fear. The riots are performed with an Asian sense of protocol and propriety. They are largely nonconfrontational. There are few surprises.Students gather. They chant and beat drums, planning to march somewhere to demonstrate. As their numbers swell, the police arrive to stymie the protest. Why do the police bother to come at all? Strictly speaking, protest is not illegal in itself. The problem Hanchongryon keeps having is that you need a permit to protest here and they just can't seem to get the paperwork in order. The police do not prevent the marches in order to stifle dissent, the argument goes. They are merely enforcing the protest laws and keeping traffic flowing. Never mind the fact that a few thousand police and a number of tear-gas trucks tend to obstruct traffic in much the same way that the students would.And never mind the fact that there are several thousand riot cops on 24-hour alert, all ready to prevent protest without a permit.At any rate, the cops arrive. They organize themselves into little platoons and battalions and wait wearily for their work to begin. I say "wearily" because they do this all the time. This is their everyday job.Once the students are ready to go, they find that every exit from the school has been blocked by policemen dressed like postmodern samurai. So they throw rocks at them. The female students, who have anticipated this turn of events and have brought hammers, break bricks and flagstones into appropriately sized projectiles for the male students to throw.However, the police are just out of range. The police throw the rocks back, but then the students are just out of range.The students gather speed. When they approach throwing distance, they hurl the stones. At this moment the police launch the tear gas and charge. The students scatter. The police give chase like dogs hunting squirrels. And, like their canine analogues, they never catch them.The police return to their lines. The students do the same. Both sides taunt and jeer. Then the students inch forward.... And so it continues until the students melt away.The first time I saw one of these riots I found it exciting. On either side, there were literally thousands of politically motivated men and women. I expected a cataclysm but I saw nothing of the sort. Since then, I have seen dozens just like the first, if smaller in scale.They have all been pretty much the same -- choreographed, inconclusive, not really even entertaining.I do not mean to ignore the occasional tragedy. A few months ago a student died of a heart attack at a protest. More recently, a police officer was killed, run over by a tear-gas truck. Around the same time, a labour activist was beaten to death by Hanchongryon students who suspected him of being a police informant.It's that incident that seems to have struck the final blow to Hanchongryon's reputation and that prompted the roundup of student leaders, the negative editorials and the creation of the New Students' Association.The Koreans, it seems, are sick of violence.But more has changed than that. Student protest sprang up in a Korea vastly different from today's modern society. It was ruled by an ironfisted dictator and was a poor player in the global economy. Today Korea is the world's 11th-largest economy. And ideology is seldom at home among the wealthy.Shift RightA series of polls hint that the shift to the right in Korea would alarm even Newt Gingrich. The Chosun newspaper asked a group of lawyers and students which, of all the presidents in Korean history, they liked best. The majority of both chose Park Chang Hee, the dictator best known for the fact that his prime minister authorized the famous massacre of hundreds of student protesters at Kwang Ju, and for the boosting of the Korean economy.Hee presided over the creation of the corporate monopolies that, since they fund the political parties, are the de facto rulers of Korea, companies like Hyundai, Daewoo, Samsung, etc.The current leader, Kim Young Sam, is seen as indecisive and weak despite his firm handling of the labour movement. In January, at a 2 am "emergency" session of Parliament to which the opposition was not invited, he passed a new labour bill to make Korea more "competitive." Needless to say, the bill passed and occasioned an uprising of Korean workers.The "theoretical problems" that Hanchongryon has are not so much inconsistencies within their ideas, or even that they like to wear Nikes. Rather, it just seems that the new wave of materialism is surpassing left-wing passions.Ideas that were once the path to freedom and prosperity now seem irredeemably radical.I ask Ku what Hanchongryon's role is in an era when the idea of reunification with the North has less and less currency.He smiles ruefully. It was North Korea, he reminds me, that in 1984 sent food aid to the South, which was starving, much as North Korea is now, as a result of flooding caused by irresponsible logging.Even if Hanchongryon does not shake governments anymore, he tells me, it can still act as a conscience.But the way things look now, the student organization may not be able to do even that.And Ku himself won't be doing much of anything for a while.