Yet it's the belief—or at least the hope—of many diplomatic and Olympic officials that because both China and the Soviet Union, North Korea's most important allies, intend to participate in the Seoul Games, the North Koreans will refrain from causing serious trouble. Indeed, last week Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, reported from Washington that North Korea had made a "secret promise" to the Soviets that it would not disrupt the Games. The source was an unnamed U.S. official who said that Americans had appealed to the Soviets during the recent Moscow summit to convince their client to lay off the Olympics.
Members of SLOOC and the IOC might be suspected of blatant boosterism in making rosy judgments about the prospects for a tranquil Games. But a somewhat more objective observer, a U.S. diplomat and longtime Asia hand who has spent 11 of the past 12 years in Korea, says, "During the Olympics, the streets of Seoul will be safer than a Sunday ball game in New York. I would bring my wife, my children, my grandparents to town, and I would let them go anywhere they wanted. Seoul is one of the safest cities on earth—and during the Olympics it will be even safer than usual."
How is it that such a consistently positive picture can be painted of a city that the world has seen to be under riotous siege night after night on television? Well, for one thing, when it comes to reporting violence, the TV eye often provides a warped and bloodshot view of the world. A 30-second news bite of street fighting in Seoul can make it seem as if an Asian Armageddon has begun.
Park Shin Ja, a retired South Korean women's basketball player who is now director of the Olympic basketball competition, says wearily, "Friends call me all the time from all over the world asking if I'm all right because they've just seen a riot on TV. I tell them time after time that these incidents are very isolated and that the city isn't really in flames and ruins."
This isn't to say that life in Seoul has been devoid of conflict. Last summer the streets were clogged for weeks with angry demonstrators in an uprising that ultimately produced a free presidential election and a new democratic constitution in a country that had been under authoritarian rule for 40 years. Koreans of all persuasions—from perennially angry college students to ordinarily placid shopkeepers, farmers and professional people—joined to make that grand rebellion a success.
This spring and summer, there again have been demonstrations in the streets. They may look the same as last year's on the nightly news, but they differ in significant ways. For one thing, the rioters in the more recent street battles have been almost entirely students; the work force has retired from fighting with the police. Also, the issues are not the same. Some of this year's demonstrators have been protesting the denial of full co-host status for North Korea in these Olympics; many more are demanding more vigorous government action to bring about reunification of the two Koreas.
Three weeks ago, about 13,000 South Korean students tried to march north to the DMZ, to meet with counterparts from the North. Forty thousand policemen intercepted the marchers. The United States has also been the target of recent student protests, which have railed at Washington for everything from causing the division of Korea in 1945 to trying to force the U.S.'s way into Korean markets with bullyboy tactics. As recently as May, students massed before the American embassy and threw homemade bombs at its buildings.
The most important difference between the riots of 1987 and those so far in '88 has been the great reduction in active participants this year. Where a murdered student's funeral procession drew a million mourners in January 1987, a similar street observance last May, held for a student who committed suicide after calling for reunification and the withdrawal of U.S. troops, attracted fewer than 50,000.
With the universities shut down for the summer—and with the Seoul government considering a delay in the reopening of classes until after the Games are concluded—the flames that kindled the recent demonstrations are all but extinguished. Sparks do continue to fly, however. Last week students from Dan-kook University in Seoul made it known that they planned to demonstrate at the National Assembly building at 5 p.m. on Friday. Green police buses arrived first, and troops carrying gas masks took up formation on the street. Bystanders glanced up and quickly went back to eating their pindaetok, a sort of Korean pizza. Students versus police was old stuff to them.
The demonstrators assembled pretty much on time in the plaza in front of the National Assembly. Most of them were women in blue jeans and T-shirts. They chanted slogans and then the police moved in rapidly to surround them. An unmarked police bus rolled up, and 100 plainclothesmen charged into the crowd and hauled the noisiest demonstrators into the bus. The remaining students linked arms and screamed. The police regrouped, charged twice more and hauled more yelling people into the bus. Some students tried to flee, but police chased and caught many of them. It was a frightening scene, and on the nightly news it probably looked as if Seoul were under siege again. In fact, there were never more than 500 students, confined to little more than a square block, and the confrontation appeared almost choreographed on both sides. The skirmish was considered so routine that no tally of either injuries or arrests was recorded.