SEOUL, JULY 5 (SUNDAY) -- Hundreds of students streamed onto the grounds of Severance Hospital here this morning to mark the death of the first student protester to die from injuries sustained during recent demonstrations.
Lee Han Yol, 23, who died early this morning, had been in a coma since he was struck on the head by a tear-gas grenade fired by riot police during South Korea's most turbulent demonstrations in recent years.
Thousands of riot policemen blocked all approaches to the hospital this morning, appearing to set the stage for another major confrontation. But after a brief standoff, the policemen withdrew, apparently in response to the government's new policy of conciliation. Students then sat down on a parking lot to sing, listen to speeches and debate whether to burn a memorial wreath sent by Roh Tae Woo, chairman of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. The rally was peaceful, but students said more demonstrations are likely before Lee's funeral in five days.
Yesterday, Roh held talks with angry relatives and supporters of South Korean political prisoners and, in a further indication of a freer political atmosphere prevailing here, met and shook hands for the first time with senior dissident leader Kim Dae Jung.
The meeting with the prisoners' relatives was confrontational as women screamed and pounded the table with their fists. Roh assured them the government was doing its best to release political prisoners.
When another member of the Democratic Justice Party suggested that freeing all of South Korea's political prisoners could turn the country communist, the women, many of them the mothers or wives of detainees, erupted. One hurled an ashtray at the official; another pummeled a government party member on the face with her fists.
"How can you say that?" she screamed. "The government fabricates all the communist charges against the people and the students."
The meeting at the ruling party's headquarters was the first between Roh and representatives of families of prisoners following President Chun Doo Hwan's pledge last week to release political prisoners as part of a sweeping package of democratic reforms. The families had requested the session.
The meeting between Roh and Kim, by contrast, occurred in the convivial setting of the U.S. Embassy's Fourth of July reception at the residence of U.S. Ambassador James Lilley.
With a Dixieland band playing in the background, Roh reportedly held out his hand to Kim, a man he previously had spoken of only as "that individual."
"I'm glad to meet you," said Roh, a tight smile on his face, Reuter reported. "Glad to meet you, too," said Kim, coolly. "You must be very busy."
Kim, who has been excluded from diplomatic gatherings for many years because of his opposition activity, also met Lilley at the reception for the first time.
The government has promised to release most political prisoners but disagrees with the opposition about how many there are.
Human rights activists here list about 1,850 people as political prisoners. The government originally said there are about 1,150 political prisoners, but now the Justice Ministry is reported to be considering releasing 2,100 people. Disagreement between the opposition and government about who is a political prisoner is becoming a major issue.
Underscoring that issue, Kim Dae Jung and the coleader of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party, Kim Young Sam, hardened their position on prisoners yesterday, saying they would not begin talks with the ruling party on political reforms until all prisoners are released.
The two sides had not been expected to begin those talks until late this week at the earliest. It was not clear whether the two Kims would hold out for full release or were trying to pressure the government to free as many as possible.
The two opposition leaders also recommended that Chun step down as president of the Democratic Justice Party and set up an interim Cabinet as a way to ensure impartiality in the coming elections. But they said this was not a demand.
The families' outburst with Roh followed another emotional scene about an hour earlier, when five policemen were convicted and sentenced in connection with the January torture death of an activist student, Park Chong Chol.
Disclosures of a police cover-up in that case prompted a national outcry and were seen as fueling the recent three weeks of street demonstrations that confronted Chun with the worst political crisis of his presidency.
About 100 people jammed into the courtroom at Seoul District Criminal Court to await the verdict, with some of the women shouting and hitting the blue-uniformed policemen with fists and purses.
Over the din, Senior Judge Son Chin Gon quickly convicted the five men and handed out sentences ranging from five to 15 years, without reading the usual sentencing statement.
The verdict touched off chaos in the courtroom, as spectators who felt the sentences were too lenient booed and shouted denunciations.