SEOUL, JULY 10 (FRIDAY) -- For the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators here yesterday, the battle of the flags was a sidelight to antigovernment rallies, but an entertaining one.
It began when protesters demanded, in full voice, that the South Korean flag flying over City Hall be lowered to half-staff to honor Yonsei University student Lee Han Yol, who was killed by a tear-gas grenade during an earlier rally. The government had rejected the suggestion days earlier, and seemed no more inclined to accept it yesterday.
Frustrated, the crowd turned its attention to the nearby Seoul Plaza Hotel, with its more accessible line of flags on a first-floor balcony.
To the crowd's delight, a masked student suddenly appeared there, lowering the Korean flag and then -- to even greater approval -- dropping the U.S. flag completely.
"It's not that we don't like Americans," one young man explained. "But for 37 years, you've been supporting the wrong guy here."
Now warmed up, the crowd demanded the dropping of the flag of Japan, which controlled Korea between 1910 and 1945. When the Japanese banner was lowered, the throng launched into the national anthem.
Later, protesters reached City Hall's tower, lowered the South Korean flag to half-staff and dropped the flag of the 1988 Summer Olympics, which Seoul is hosting and which are said to be a great source of national pride.
"That was curious," one diplomat said. "We always tell ourselves the people want the Olympics, and I think they do. But a lot of people resent the politicization of the Olympics -- they don't like the way the government is using the games."
However, two minutes after police began their tear-gas barrage and regained control of the streets, the Olympic flag was flying again.
As Lee's funeral procession moved through Yonsei's gates, Presbyterian ministers and their followers sang hymns. Students chanted against dictatorship. Traditional drums beat mournfully in cadence for the pallbearers.
And as the crowd tramped through the campus, the potent and lingering odor of tear gas -- the residue of weeks of demonstrations -- hung in the air. The sounds of thousands of people sneezing punctuated all else.