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SOUTH KOREA: Riots and Rights

3 minute read

Park faces new protests

After a series of inflammatory antigovernment rallies, 3,000 university students tore through the streets of Pusan last week, attacking government offices with rocks and fire bombs and battling police far into the night. The Seoul government denied student claims that five demonstrators had been killed, but admitted that six, along with 73 policemen, had been injured. Six police cars and 21 sentry boxes were destroyed. The eight-hour rampage, which followed several other clashes the night before, was the most serious outbreak of rioting in South Korea since the student rebellion that overthrew President Syngman Rhee in 1960.

The challenge was not lost on the tough, army-backed regime of President Park Chung Hee. After calling an emergency meeting of his Cabinet, Park clamped martial law on Pusan and replaced the local police chief with a general as military governor. The government also ordered a curfew, closed the campuses of both Pusan National University and Dong-a University, and imposed press censorship. Park appealed to the South Korean public to cooperate against “unruly moves threatening the foundation of constitutional rule.”

The rioting was only part of a broad surge of unrest against Park’s autocratic rule. Three days before the Pusan riots, all 69 opposition deputies in the 231-member National Assembly angrily resigned to protest the expulsion of their popular leader, New Democratic Party Chief Kim Young Sam. The assembly majority—carefully stacked with tame members appointed by Park—had voted to oust Kim after he attacked the government as “a basically dictatorial regime,” called on the U.S. to “pressure” Park on behalf of human rights and declared that he was prepared to discuss reunification with North Korean Dictator Kim II Sung.

Washington was displeased with Kim’s expulsion and even more concerned about the consequent turmoil, which could only damage the reliability of a Far Eastern ally that has 39,000 U.S. troops stationed on its soil. Even before the rioting, the State Department had criticized what it called “a definite retrogression of human rights in South Korea” and showed its disapproval by recalling Ambassador William Gleysteen for “consultations.” At week’s end, Defense Secretary Harold Brown, accompanied by Gleysteen, went ahead with a long scheduled visit to Seoul. Even though he announced that the U.S. was withdrawing 1,500 of its support troops from the country, Brown reassured the South Koreans that the U.S. stood ready to come to their defense in case of a North Korean attack. American officials also said that Brown’s briefcase carried a private, more pointed message for Park: a rebuke from President Carter.

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