Violence threatens Korean elections

Election jitters: Fear of student riots and a clash with the North cast shadow over polling day
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The Independent Online


In life, Roh Soo Sok was one of many, a clever law student at a famous private college, a handsome 20-year-old who spent his spare time playing traditional Korean drums. But, overnight he became a secular saint, and the campus of Yonsei University, in the west of Seoul, became his shrine.

Huge banners draped over the university gates display poems eulogising him as "a young eagle". Students wear T-shirts bearing his image. Large paintings of a Christ-like Roh, his head wreathed in clouds, have been posted all over the campus, draped in black ribbons.

His coffin sits beneath an improvised tent, guarded around the clock by unsmiling youths with black headbands, white masks, and wooden batons.

There are offerings of incense and flowers and, carried around the campus by a spring breeze, a stronger and sweeter smell. Roh has been dead for almost two weeks and, despite the dry ice and the small electric cooler perched on top of his coffin, he is beginning to decompose.

South Korean students, once the most enthusiastic protesters in Asia, have been quiet recently. But, in an uneasy week for South Korea, with North Korean troops violating the armistice, and elections taking place tomorrow, there is again a powerful sense of grievance.

This morning, 12 days after his heart attack during a demonstration in Seoul, Mr Roh's coffin will be hoisted on to the shoulders of his comrades who will carry him through the streets to a service in front of City Hall, before driving overnight to a cemetery in the southern city of Kwangju. That is the plan. As everyone understands, South Korea's vigilant riot police have other ideas.

The elections to the South Korean assembly will take place tomorrow in an atmosphere of tension. Nine years after the first direct presidential elections, democracy is established in South Korea. But the country still labours under unique pressures, as the weekend incursions by troops from the Communist North has emphasised.

This year, President Kim Young Sam, the first head of state in four decades with no military background, robbed the students of their greatest complaints against him. After resisting for three years, he finally consented to prosecuting two presidential predecessors, the former generals Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, on charges of bribery and treason.

But with a year still to run, Mr Kim's New Korea Party stands to lose its parliamentary majority tomorrow. According to students at Yonsei, the death of Roh Soo Sok is a symbol of a new intolerance fostered by the insecurity of the South Korean leadership.

One of the biggest question marks hanging over the President is his indebtedness to the massive, illegal slush fund accumulated by presidents Chun and Roh. Opposition leaders say Mr Kim received dirty money for his 1988 election campaign. At the demonstration on which Roh collapsed and died, this was one of the complaints.

An autopsy concluded Mr Roh had died of heart failure, but his body bore numerous bruises apparently inflicted by the police. "I have been in many fights with the police before," said Hwang Sang Woo, of the Yonsei Student Union, "but that time they were unprecedentedly harsh." He added: "Nothing will persuade me the police were not the direct cause of his death."

Students are not the only group to detect intolerance in the government. Foreign journalists in Seoul recently sent a protest letter to the President's aides after the correspondent for the Australian Financial Review was refused a visa for writing articles displeasing to the government. And, despite having been to being jail himself as a dissident democracy leader, the President's government continues to prosecute left-wing writers and academics under a draconian National Security Law.

On Monday, the police in Kwangju, heartland of Korean anti-establishment protest, announced their resolve to "strongly confront" student protests, "to ensure the 15th parliamentary election is carried out in a happy, fair and open environment". But the students in Seoul are also resolved. Outside the Yonsei campus, a few yards from his decaying body, a banner bears a poem entitled "The Fall Of A Young Eagle":

Roh Soo Sok, who beat the drum

Came back to us dead, with his heart cold and numb

Dream sweetly, friend, beneath the white sheet,

As we take in our own hands the drum you once beat.