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Why Korea's Students Take to the Streets

AS a boy in South Korea, I often heard my mother's account of her flight from North Korea shortly before the outbreak of the Korean war. She had to bribe Russian soldiers with a watch to cross the border. The war prevented her family from joining her, and she has not seen them since she left. The war years and those afterward were a period of great privation for her generation. But I was more interested in discoth`eques and pop songs than in her tales. I had a hard time relating to her generation, just as she could not understand mine.

I understand my mother's outlook better, now, but I also understand what lies behind the student demonstrations in South Korea. Although I don't agree with all of their positions, I know where the students are ``coming from.''

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Three-quarters of Korea's population were born since the Korean war. Young Koreans have a different political outlook from that of their parents. Older Koreans, who were brought up with Confucian ethics and under authoritarian regimes, think it is impossible to challenge the government. Often they regard a president as a king. Defiance is unthinkable.

Young Koreans who were brought up in Western-style education hold different views. They do not simply accept their government at face value. Students are not afraid to speak out and ask questions. They feel that they have a special mission to represent their people because others do not dare to speak out.

In the past, the main thrust of student movements was to bring democratic reform to their country. Recently students have begun to add very delicate topics to their agenda, however.

One of the Korean students' mottoes is ``Yankee go home.'' They want US troops to leave the country.

To the older Koreans, the demand is premature. Can South Korea defend itself from North Korea without help from the United States?, they ask. The North Korean Army is much larger than that of South Korea. The 40,000 US Army troops in Korea have been filling the gap.

But the students' main question is: How long will US troops remain? One Korean political analyst asks how Americans would feel if South Korea sent its troops to guard the US and a Korean general commanded all the American troops in the US? This is what has been happening in Korea. A four-star US general controls 629,000 Korean troops in South Korea. Not many Koreans are happy about this. Eventually, this analyst says, South Koreans must learn to stand on their own feet.

Another student issue is unification of the two Koreas. Most older Koreans laugh at this idea. To those who went through the Korean war, the students' demand is unrealistic and naive. So many people were killed by North Korean communists; millions of families were separated as a result of the war. They don't trust North Korea.

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Korean students argue that Korea has a 5,000-year history as a nation, whereas it has been divided in two for only 43 years. Students don't realize how much the two Koreas have changed during that 43-year separation, however. The leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, built a regime that is totally closed to the West. Nobody knows what is really going on inside.

South Korea has had a less authoritarian dictatorship, compared with that of the North. Even though South Korea has a history of political turmoil, the fervor for democracy forced the country to move toward a more open society.

As a young Korean who has witnessed the student movement, I have great respect for students' courage to speak out and for their fresh perspective. But I also have concerns. One is about the violent demonstration method employed by students. Violence creates more violence. Also, I see problems with students' simplistic logic. Many times they describe political situations as either right or wrong. There is no middle ground, no compromise.

When I was a student, I thought as a student. I now realize that life is not always black and white.

Whenever I complained about certain things, my mother used to say, ``In life we cannot always taste sweet things, oftentimes we have to taste bitter and still learn to smile.'' Maybe this is something we young Koreans still need to learn.

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