Political Extremism and Political Violence

Political Extremism and Political Violence

The deliberate use of violence, including occasional assassination, to express or advance political goals was common among both the right and the left in South Korea after liberation in 1945 and up to the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Subsequent political violence up to the 1980s, apart from exchanges between police and participants in political demonstrations or rallies, was largely limited to the illegal government use of violence or the threat of violence to suppress dissent and intimidate political opponents. During the presidency of Syngman Rhee (1948-60), for example, the government mobilized the Anticommunist Youth League and members of street gangs to smash facilities of critical newspapers and intimidate opposition candidates for election. The Park government continued illegal police practices, including torture of some dissidents, intellectuals, and even members of the National Assembly, and was often indirectly involved in violence. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) also used various means, including physical threats, to intimidate South Korean journalists in the United States. Such methods continued under Chun, occasionally resulting in the deaths of political defendants under police torture. Police were passively present while hired thugs broke up dissident religious services or union meetings. Under Roh Tae Woo, police handling of political suspects retained some of the illegal violence of earlier times, although improved media freedom also meant greater scrutiny of police misconduct. In contrast with earlier regimes, however, the Roh government permitted prosecution and conviction of police officers and even of military personnel in several cases involving violence during its first year in office.

Under a special "afforestation program" administered by the Defense Security Command, more than 400 student activists were punitively induced into the army during the Chun years; according to a Ministry of National Defense report, at least 5 committed suicide or were killed, and many were forced to become informants. At least 50 people died (of some 10,000 incarcerated) in the government's "triple purity" (samch'ong) reeducation camps in the early 1980s. Ten years after the May 1980 Kwangju incident, many South Koreans continued to believe that the initial violence committed by armed Special Forces troops against civilian demonstrators on that occasion was deliberate. The former martial law commander for the region told a National Assembly committee in 1988 that civilian protests were not violent enough at the beginning to justify the use of elite forces and that army brutality aggravated the situation.

Public violence against government institutions was rare from the 1950s through the early 1980s. When students overthrew the Syngman Rhee government in April 1960, mobs destroyed the headquarters of Rhee's Anticommunist Youth League. More spontaneous forms of violence often occurred during student protest rallies in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when small numbers of rock-throwing students at the edges of large rallies clashed with club-wielding riot police, or security forces dispatched martial arts experts and plainclothes officers to beat or arrest demonstrators. Students also occasionally beat up police informants or plainclothes officers. This pattern changed following the killings of students and other demonstrators in Kwangju in May 1980.

The Kwangju incident permanently stained the legitimacy of the Chun government for subsequent generations of student activists, many of whom also blamed the United States for what they believed to be its supportive role. The use of Molotov cocktails by some elements among student demonstrators, both as a counter to increasingly effective police use of tear gas and as a reflection of increased militancy, became a feature of student demonstrations during the 1980s.

Another threshold was crossed in March 1982, when several students deliberately set a fire in the American Cultural Center in Pusan, causing severe damage, and, inadvertently, the death of another South Korean student studying in the building at the time. In a related statement, the students said they were beginning an anti-United States struggle to eliminate United States power from South Korea. The students blamed the United States for causing "the permanent national division of Korea" and for "supporting the military regime that refuses democratization, social revolution, and development."

In April 1985, radical students, together with veteran activists released from prison the year before, formed the Struggle Committee for the Liberation of the Masses, the Attainment of Democracy, and the Unification of the Nation, or Sammint'u. The ideology of this organization borrowed from the dependency theory in blaming a "dependent industrialization process" dominated by the United States for South Korea's social and political problems. Sammint'u supported various forms of direct action, including infiltration of labor unions and forcible occupations of United States and South Korean government facilities. Sammint'u activists conducted a number of such actions, including a three-day seizure of the United States Information Service (USIS) building in Seoul in May 1985 and the occupation of two regional offices of the Ministry of Labor in November of the same year. Although Sammint'u was suppressed in 1986 under the National Security Act as an "antistate" organization, its emphasis on well-organized occupations and other actions (rather than the more spontaneous forms of traditional student protest) and its ability to mobilize students across campus lines marked a permanent change in student protest tactics.

By the late 1980s, violence-prone student radicals, although a small minority even among politically active students, demonstrated increasing effectiveness in organizing occupations and arson assaults against facilities. In 1988, under the general guidance of the National Association of University Student Councils (Chondaehyop) or the Seoul Area Federation of Student Councils (Soch'ongnyon), small groups of students armed with Molotov cocktails, metal pipes, and occasionally tear gas grenades or improvised incendiary or explosive devices, staged more than two dozen raids on United States diplomatic and military facilities. Students also conducted a similar number of attacks against offices of the government and ruling party and the suburban Seoul residence of former President Chun.

Anti-United States attacks in 1989 began in February with a seizure of the USIS library in Seoul and attempted arson at the American Cultural Center in Kwangju. Additional incidents continued through the year at about the same level as in 1988, culminating in the violent occupation of the United States ambassador's residence by six students in December. In the spring of 1989, there were numerous incidents of arson and vandalism against Hyundai automobile showrooms in many cities as Chondaehyop mobilized member organizations nationwide to support a strike by Hyundai shipyard workers. Other attacks occurred throughout the year against Democratic Justice Party (DJP) offices and South Korean government facilities.

As the 1980s ended, however, violence-prone radical groups also suffered setbacks and found themselves under increased pressure from the courts, police, and public and student opinion. The deaths of seven police officers in a fire set by student demonstrators in Pusan in May 1989, the arrest of Chondaehyop leaders on National Security Act charges stemming from the unauthorized travel of a member of the organization to P'yongyang over the summer, and the beating to death of a student informer by activists at one university in Seoul in October contributed to this pressure. In student council elections throughout the country in late 1989, students at many campuses defeated student council officers associated with the Chondaehyop's "national liberation" strategy, often replacing them with other leaders who favored a "people's democracy" approach, emphasizing organizational work among farmers and the labor movement over violent assaults on symbolic targets, at least for the near term.

Many South Korean commentators interpreted the outcome of the 1989 campus elections as a renunciation of violent methods or as a turn away from radical student activism. Other observers noted, however, the ideological and organizational complexity of "people's democracy" elements, some of which had in the past equaled or exceeded Chondaehyop's commitment to violent activism. As the 1990s began, it seemed likely that at least some radical elements, though perhaps increasingly driven underground like their counterparts in Japan, would remain committed to the use of violence as a political tool.

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