After decades of firebombs and tear gas, South Korea's protesting students - once their country's conscience and a common sight on television news worldwide - are suddenly going extinct.
Just last year, they were out in full force on Aug. 15, National Liberation Day, demanding reunification with North Korea. Students battled riot police with steel pipes and firebombs. They seized university buildings. Police fired so much tear gas - even dropping it from helicopters - that trees withered around Yonsei University's campus in Seoul.
In addition to destroying property and clogging traffic, last year's confrontation generated public outrage against Hanchongnyon, the Korean Federation of Student Councils. Public disgust, a new government crackdown, and internal dissent are crumbling the federation. During most of the 1980s, when South Korea was still under a dictatorship, the public respected student demonstrators for promoting democracy. But since the election of a civilian president in 1992, they've lost support. After witnessing the radical and violent action of last year's demonstration, an outraged public and many fellow students turned their backs on the protesters. "They don't fight for freedom anymore - just for North Korea," says Lee Joo-seop, a graduate student at Seoul National University. The last straw came early this summer when students mistook an innocent bystander for a police informer and beat him to death. The government was able to declare Hanchongnyon an illegal organization, ordering its members to disband or face arrest. On July 31, at the end of a grace period, government agents started hunting some 450 hard-core student protesters and put up most-wanted posters in airports, and bus and train stations. The Education Ministry threatened to cut subsidies to schools whose student councils don't withdraw from the federation. More than 130 of 206 member colleges have cut ties with the federation so far, and a reformist faction has rallied for the resignation of current leaders. In the past, protesting students aimed to provoke the government by espousing a version of modern Korean history and a strategy for unifying the split peninsula that mimics North Korean propaganda. The government feared such views, if accepted widely, would undermine its legitimacy and its ability to deal with the North. It classified demonstrators as "benefiting the enemy," which allowed them to face arrest. …