April 19 has always been an awkward day in South Korea.
It is the anniversary of the 1960 student uprising that precipitated the fall of Syngman Rhee's government. Nearly 200 students were killed.
The present government of President Park Chung Hoe revernes the uprising because it was the first in a chain of events that brought Park to power in 1961. It is also revered by Park's enemies> the dissidents, because they regard it as the true revolution later usurped by Park to establish his own authoritarian government.
The awkwardness arises from the fact that both the Park government and the dissidents mus pay their respects to the dead students at the same place, a shrine-like monument in a suburban hillside cemetery overlooking Seoul. Over the years, a kind of truce has been worked out. The government announces the time of its official observance at the monument. The dissidents then schdule theirs at a different time of day.
On the anniversary, this year there was even a semblance of national unity. Among the floral displays was one sent by President Park. Another was placed on behalf of Kim Dae Jung, the imprisoned political leader who almost defeated Park in an election. Park's display was a large one and was placed most prominently in front of the monument next to an altar. Kim's was smaller and carefully segregated rom Park's in a remote spot some distance away.
It would seem, then, that all would have been ready for a separate but equal observance of April 19.
The dissidents come first. There is Yun Po Sun, 82, the patirarch of dissidence who had briefly been president before Park's military coup in 1961. Kim Dae Jung's wife is there, along with a representative's victims. There is a former editor of Dong a Ilbo, who resigned from that once-venturesome newspaper rather than accept government control, and there is one of his former reporters who went to jail. There are fired university professors and religious leaders recently released from prison and a former president of Park's own political party who bolted to join the dissidents in the 1960s.
At first, it is peaceful gathering. Hymns are sung, prayers are uttered, and flowers are placed on the grave makers.
The government, however, knows better than to trust such a mob. Korean Central Intelligence Abency enforcers hover nearby, watching for something illegal. They move in closer as the dissidents begin singing hymns on a grassy embankment.
"Off the grass," a KCIA leader bellows. The dissidents shout back, but move off the grass.
Then comes the moment for which both sides have been waiting, the time of ritual crime and punishment. Two women unfurl a homemade banner proclaiming, "An end to the dictatorship!"
KCIA agents storm in with fists flailing and tear the banner away. Another is unfurled and the KCIA rips it triumphantly down. A woman is left crying and bruised on the stone steps. The ritual is over and the dissidents walk away singing the Korean version of "We Shall Overcome."
Next comes a contingent from the Democratic Unification Party, a small, ineffectual splinter group that periodically denounces the government. They approach the monument, pay their respects, and pull out their own banner. This message is ambiguous: "We shall follow the spirit of the April revolution by restoring democracy."
It briefly puzzles the KCIA, Is it illegal or isn't it?
Finally, the agents crash in to grab the banner. They are momentarily beaten off by the flailing of umbrellas.Later, the Unificaiton Party departs, walking in the center of a street. It is blocked off by uniformed police and several members are arrested. Street demonstrations in Seoul are not ambiguous.
The next to arrive is a group from the New Democratic Party, which is known as the opposition party although its opposition to the government is usually restrained. The KCIA relaxes. There are no protest prayers, no banners.
Later in the day, the official government contingent ocmes and pays its respects to the dead student. They come and to quietly and Seoul has survived another April 19.