When I first arrived in Korea, student demonstrations were quite common, especially in Spring (maybe it was some sort of historical rite of passage). However, in the summer of 1996 when student demonstrators took over Yonsei University, things got a little dicey.
Yonsei under Siege
Almost every summer that I have lived in Seoul, once the rainy season has ended, stifling, oppressive heat and humidity engulf the peninsula during the months of July and August. Before air conditioners became affordable for most people, you generally woke up already feeling drained (because you had only managed a few hours of restless sleep) and then had to drag yourself through another day.
The summer of 1996 was a hot one (not as hot as 1994, which set records until they were broken in 2004) and for those of us teaching at Yonsei’s Foreign Language Institute, it was going to get hotter and very intense.
Around the end of July, there was a general strike on campus and most of the administrative offices were closed. We were still open for business as usual, but our office staff was reduced. The only problem was there was no one to turn on the cooling system, which ran the air conditioning. For about a week, we had to teach in sweltering classrooms (without fans) until someone finally complained to the president of Yonsei to have someone switch on the air conditioning. Someone did.
That had pretty much drained us (along with teaching a full load of classes) and hadn’t paid much attention to reports that there was going to be some unification rally held at Yonsei, which would probably become a demonstration.
No sooner had the strike ended when things started to get intense on August 12 when 2,500 riot police sealed off Yonsei University to prevent students from holding this three-day rally. Violent clashes between protestors and riot police took place around Yonsei as well as other parts of the city where other students clashed with police. Other areas were blocked off by riot police around Seodaemun-gu (western Seoul) to prevent students from marching to Panmunjom to welcome two students who were returning from North Korea.
Approximately 2,000 students had already assembled on the Yonsei campus and had barricaded the main entrance with desks and other furniture from classrooms and offices. There was one bizarre news story of a fire breaking out in the student union while students were making Molotov cocktails.
At the time, I was living in a studio apartment just a few meters away from the West Gate of the university. When I walked to school in the morning, I had to pass through a cordon of riot police who had blocked off the entrance. One morning when I walked to school, I had to literally step around hundreds of students sleeping on the ground. I was surprised to see many older men hanging out with the students. They looked like some pretty rough types, thugs no less, who might have wanted to join in to rally the students.
One day, during this so-called “unification rally,” a teacher on his way to FLI came across an unexploded tear gas shell and brought it to school. He freaked out our Head of Studies (he had previously brought in a riot police helmet and shield he had found on campus and she didn’t like that too much at all) who immediately ordered him to get rid of it as soon as possible.
While this rally was taking place, it was also during the final week of our university (then called Yonsei classes) English classes. Back then, all of the morning classes were held in buildings on campus, many of them not far from where these violent clashes between students and riot police were taking place. Teachers were literally administering final exams while the rocks, Molotov cocktails, and tear gas were flying outside.
There was a lot of action taking place around the West Gate where a large number of students had taken over the science building. In another bizarre turn of events, students had broken into a private collection of rocks by a geology professor (including, as reported by one of the English-language newspapers, a moon rock; whether anyone did some fact checking to see if this was true or not was never mentioned) and had thrown them at the riot police below. It was rather absurd in a way that a lot of people, including myself, gathered around the West Gate to watch the standoff between the students and the police. It was even comical in a way in which some of the riot police would egg on the students to throw rocks at them and then jump out of the way, as rocks rained down on them.
One night, I went up to the roof of my apartment building to watch some of the fighting in the streets below. Although the riot police had done a good job of sealing off the campus, a number of students who managed to sneak by. I could see some of them running from the police and making a beeline for the West Gate. In the distance, I could hear continuous volleys of tear gas being fired which were probably fired from black vans that had these tear gas launchers on top. Every once in awhile there was a flash of light when a volley of tear gas was fired, which sort of reminded me of the Fourth of July.
The standoff between student protestors and police at Yonsei in August of 1996 would end up lasting for nine days before riot police finally stormed the university. For those of us who were teaching at Yonsei’s Foreign Language Institute as well as living near the university that summer, there would be some pretty intense moments before it was all over.
There were a lot of bizarre, surreal moments as well. On more than one occasion, parents of some of the student protestors came to the university and pleaded with riot police to let their children go. In a classic show of subservience, some mothers came dressed up in Hanboks (a traditional Korean dress) and wailed as they pleaded with the police to allow them to see their children. Other parents, expecting the standoff to continue for sometime, tried to pass food and water to students through the West Gate but were stopped by riot police, which prompted a bit of pushing and shoving by some angry parents.
The morning after I had gone up to the roof of my apartment building to get a glimpse of some of the fighting in the narrow streets below, I decided to take a walk over to the main road that ran in front of the university to see what was going on. The road had been blocked off from the Yonhui Interchange (similar to a cloverleaf) all the way east past the university and Severance Hospital. It was Saturday and there were hundreds of curious onlookers walking down the closed-off street to the Main Gate of the campus to watch some of the drama. I ran into one of my colleagues Mike Gibb who was also a little curious about what was going and the two of us headed toward the main gate.
The best way to describe what was happening was that it was like watching a movie or some sporting event. You had a group of students in front of the main gate facing off with a large contingency of riot police. On either side, there were hundreds of onlookers, riot police and dozens of riot police buses. It seemed like some surreal ballet movement the way it was orchestrated. First, the students would move forward throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. Then some of the “skull busters” would charge forward swinging their steel pipes and hitting some of the students before they retreated. Then a round or two of tear gas was fired and the whole thing was repeated. It would have been so easy for the riot police to charge forward and end it right there, but maybe there were some “rules of engagement” which prevented them from launching an all-out offensive to take back the university.
After awhile I got bored as did Mike who was on his way downtown. Other people watching this lunacy also had enough and started to leave.
Other moments were not too amusing. Some helicopters were brought in to spray liquid tear gas on students who had seized the Science Building near the West Gate. As soon as I heard the choppers flying overhead, I went up on the roof to watch them circle around the campus and see what they were going to do. They came in low and started dropping all this liquid tear gas. Problem was, it was not something that could be turned off quickly and many homes outside the West Gate also had a lot of the tear gas dropped on them. I just made it inside before I got hit with it.
Then someone came up with another brilliant idea to drop some blue dye on the student protestors to identify them if they were apprehended. The same thing happened. The helicopter overshot the Science Building and sprayed a lot of unsuspecting people who had gotten to close to the west gate. There was blue dye everywhere for a couple of weeks after the siege had ended.
The students had done a pretty good job of barricading themselves inside the campus to prevent riot police from having an easy path inside if they were to storm the university especially the main gate and the east gate (near FLI). For the first couple days of the standoff, we were still able to walk through the campus to get home (a few other instructors besides myself lived just outside the west gate). However, when clashes between students and riot police got more violent, there was no way we were going to be able to get through the campus, or even follow the main road that went past the main gate to Yonhui-dong.
One night, after a fierce day of fighting, one of those instructors, Tim Lawman and I had two choices to get home. We could walk through Ewha Women’s University, which was located across a busy boulevard from Yonsei and take a subway to Hongik Station (two stops away) and then walk home, or we could try to get through the Yonsei Campus to the north gate and then walk back through Yonhui-dong. We decided on the shorter of the two and started to walk up the street from FLI to Yonsei’s East Gate.
First, we had to climb over all the desks, chairs and other crap that the students had used to barricade the East Gate, which wasn’t too difficult. There were no police there and surprisingly no students were standing guard. It appeared that Tim and I had made the right decision to take this way until we came to a group of students standing at the side of the road, which led up a small hill and down another one (that eventually would come out at the north gate).
Although it was after 9:00, we could see that the students (who were wearing bandanas around their mouths and noses to protect them from the tear gas) were staring at us pretty intensely as they clanged their long, metal pipes on the road. Maybe they thought they were trying to scare us or something. Tim and I just kept walking and didn’t pay any more attention to them.
After that the initial confrontation, our evening stroll was quite pleasant until we reached the North Gate and got our first whiff of tear gas still hanging in the air. You know the adage, “the blind leading the blind?” That was what it was like for Tim, I, as we staggered, stumbled and groped our way along, our eyes burning from the tear gas, which had gotten thicker the further we pressed on. It wasn’t until we were near our apartments when the air became breathable and our eyes stopped burning.
By the end of the ninth day, everyone had enough and riot police finally stormed the campus. Helicopters flew overhead directing the assault while some students, not wanting to confront the police anymore, managed to elude the riot police and escaped into the Yonhui-dong neighborhood. Later, that evening on CNN coverage of the assault, we could see students jumping across rooftops with riot police in pursuit.
As one last great act of defiance, some students set fire to one of the buildings they had occupied.
Most of the students who had occupied the campus during the nine-day siege were rounded up and detained. There was a photo of them in one of the newspapers, squatting in the parking lot of a middle school across the street from the campus with their hands tied with rope, waiting to board buses. A few of the students were crying but there was no tear gas in the air.
Three weeks later, school started and for many of the students who had held the campus hostage, trashed classrooms and buildings, defecated and urinated pretty much everywhere when the toilets no longer worked, all they got was a slap on the wrist.