Violence has dealt a severe blow to the South Korean opposition's campaign to revise the Constitution. A rally for direct election of the president, which was scheduled to take place Saturday in the city of Inchon, never had a chance to get off the ground. Police began battling thousands of students and workers in the streets before opposition leaders including Kim Young Sam even approached the hall where the rally was to be held.
In the Saturday afternoon riot turned their wrath not only against the governments of South Korea and the United States, but also against the opposition New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP) itself, which students see as too accommodating. The melee marks a bitter turn of events for the NKDP, which, until Saturday, had succeeded in pulling off a series of largely peaceful rallies around the country.
The students set fire to a car belonging to an NKDP official and a police truck used for launching tear gas and started a fire that gutted the local headquarters of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. Some students savagely beat captured riot police and plainclothes men, and police report more than 30 police injuries. It is not clear how many students were injured by police, who are not known for their restraint.
Exactly how the fighting started is still in dispute. The NKDP accuses police of provoking the riot by firing tear gas into the crowd to break up a peaceful assembly. NKDP officials repeatedly asked riot police to withdraw. In previous rallies, radical students managed to hold their own meetings and clashed with police only after the main rally ended.
Saturday's events capped off a week of rising violence and extremism on university campuses and signal a breakdown in the tenuous cooperation between the moderate and extreme factions of the opposition. Last Tuesday, thousands of students met at Yonsei University in Seoul to inaugurate a pan-university organization of student activists known as Minmintu, which roughly means ``Struggle for Democracy and Nationalism.''
On the same day, Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's leading dissident, joined others in the opposition in denouncing rising anti-Americanism and extremism. It was an unusual step that was bound to anger students, but Mr. Kim and the NKDP needed to distance themselves from extremists in order to avoid losing credibility among the broader public.