[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]The fires of democracy; Pope makes first visitMay 3, 1989
During the military regimes that ruled Korea from former Presidents Park Chung Hee through Chun Doo Hwan, clashes between student activists and riot police were unavoidable, a consuming vicious circle of violence.
Often, the violence came after orders from above for the police to use weapons.
In turn, student activists used their own weapons ― from Molotov cocktails to tear gas to bottles. Tragic casualties occurred on both sides, such as on this date in Busan. Known as the “Dong-eui University Incident,” the fracas remains one of the most elusive historical clashes between police and students.
It started when a professor at Dong-eui University laid bare a corruption scandal related to entrance examinations from the previous year. The following day, however, nine students were taken to the police station, and the student union reacted by taking hostage five undercover riot police working on campus.
Student activists staged a nightlong demonstration in the library, and started negotiations with the police over who would be freed first. The students reportedly promised to hand over the five police officers on this date, but they had an unwelcome visit from the police around 5 a.m.
In the melee that followed, fires allegedly started by student activists broke out and spread. Seven police officers died, and 46 students were arrested and eventually sentenced to seven years in prison. Some were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The incident occurred during the second year of Roh Tae-woo’s administration, a military regime faced with the pressure of rapid changes in society and protests.
Mr. Roh, however, could never have been president without his past association with President Chun, a former military general and a close subordinate since their days at the military academy.
Mr. Roh was formerly an Army general, yet he could have been president after making what’s known as the “June 28 Declaration,” after the historic June Revolution earlier in the year. The declaration promoted democratic values, a gesture that the public believed to herald the beginning of a new era of democracy.
At least on this date, however, Mr. Roh’s promise for democracy seemed to be far away.
What started as a simple demonstration by the student union asking for clear answers regarding the corruption scandal ended up in a tragedy that took people’s lives.
When it was announced in 2002 that some student activists who took part in this incident were to be recognized as contributors to Korean democracy, many newspapers expressed concern and criticism, saying that the “arsonists cannot be called democracy fighters.”
Some liberal newspapers argued that the students were also fighting for the truth regarding the suspicious deaths of two other activists.
Lee Gyeong-hyeon, a Busan college student, died from brain damage after being beaten by riot police. Another student, Lee Cheol-gyu, was allegedly killed by riot police, and his body surfaced in a reservoir in Gwangju, South Jeolla province, student activists said. This is why some photos of the “Dong-eui University Incident” carry placards and banners reading, “Long live Gyeong-hyeon and Cheol-gyu.”
Despite all the elusiveness of the matter, however, one point remains clear: The unwanted tragedy that came from the university protests remains a stain on Korea’s history, a legacy of the country’s military regimes.
May 3, 1984
Catholicism in Korea took root along a thorny path during the middle of the Joseon Dynasty’s isolationist policy. The seed of the religion, however, successfully budded in Korean soil, among the blood of martyrs who were killed for their devotion to the religion, which the Joseon Dynasty considered an evil from the West. Catholicism, however, actually played a key role in Korea’s democracy movement, and Myongdong Cathedral sheltered activists.
Despite such ups and downs, Catholicism in Korea grew year by year. On this date, the late Pope John Paul II visited to commemorate the 200th year of Catholicism here. The late John Paul II was the first pope to come to Korea. Upon arriving, the pope kissed the land, following the rituals of the religion and during his stay canonized 12 martyrs as saints.
by Chun Su-jin