Crackdown on campus riots

August 22, 1997

The South Korean government is cracking down on Hanchongnyon, the federation of student organisations it says is responsible for orchestrating the violent demonstrations that have become a regular feature of campus life.

It is using public disgust at the brutal death of a factory worker, beaten to death by students who thought they were dealing with an undercover police informer, to arrest leading student activists.

The militant students should curtail their anti-government demonstrations and direct their campaigning energies towards students' welfare matters and national environmental issues, according to a recent survey of university and college students in Seoul, the South Korean capital. The survey revealed that a majority of undergraduates do not support the violent anti-government confrontations.

The results of the survey follow a series of particularly violent demonstrations and riots which culminated in the factory worker's death. Groups of students met at several campuses to make a silent protest against the violence.

The government called on 2,000 Hanchongnyon members to withdraw from the federation or face arrest and punishment under the country's stringent security laws. Government officials have repeatedly accused Hanchongnyon of being controlled by communist groups whose aim is to destabilise the present democracy and bring about reconciliation with the communist regime in North Korea.

The government has also criticised Hanchongnyon for being anti-foreign when South Korea is developing an international economy and seeking to boost the country's prosperity by developing its overseas trade and industry.

Parents of student activists are concerned about the impact that the government's hardline clampdown on political demonstrations will have on the future career prospects of their sons and daughters.

Hundreds of students arrested or detained during a recent demonstration at Yonsei University in Seoul have already been given prison sentences for a variety of public disorder offences. "Students who take part in street riots face the prospect of arrest, prison and unemployment," one university administrator declared.

But militant student groups say they will continue with their demonstrations in support of a number of different issues. The use of security laws to discourage demonstrations, they argue, threatens their right to free speech.

South Korean students have a long tradition of ignoring the warnings and threats of the government, and of their parents, lecturers and fellow students, by organising and participating in street demonstrations. This year marks the tenth anniversary of some of the country's most violent demonstrations which involved over a million students.

Many commentators blame South Korea's student radicalism on a stultifying education system in which students are forced to work hard to win highly prized places at top universities only to be confronted by poor campus facilities, lacklustre tuition and boredom. With large amounts of spare time on their hands, it is argued, students have both the time and the inclination to get involved in political movements and campaigns.

But it is also true that many young South Koreans feel strongly about the profound economic and political changes which are affecting their country. The willingness of so many students to take part in marches and demonstrations, one newspaper commented, shows that the nation's young people really care about their country.

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