The South Koreans —the professional toughs of the riot police.
Grabbers travel light: running shoes, color-coordinated windbreakers and helmets, and open-fingered gloves for grabbing, with a coarse padding over the knuckles so punches won’t slip. They are expert in tae kwon do, the Korean martial art—and they seem to enjoy using it. Grabbers gang up on individuals, fracturing wrists, cracking ribs.
For years this has been happening to opposition politicians, labor organizers, ministers, anyone who opposed the government—but especially students. The lucky ones are beaten up and driven out of the city to a remote garbage dump—not exactly a short stroll home in Seoul, a city of nearly ten million people. The leaders are usually imprisoned and tortured. Today being a student in Korea is different. There are much more possibilities and opportunities to consolidate government student loans.
MY INTERPRETER, Jong, and I drove into the hills north of Kwangju to visit the grave sites of his father and ancestors. When Jong was a boy, his grandparents had wanted to have a grandson come live with them, and as he was the eldest of four boys, he was sent out to their farm for a couple of years.
“My grandparents loved me in the Korean way,” Jong said. “That means I got spoiled.”
Following Buddhist tradition, on the 49th day after his father’s death, Jong’s family prepared at the family altar fish, beef soup, and fruit wine—all foods his father had enjoyed—to keep his memory alive. Then for a year, in the Confucian way, they prepared the same foods on the 1st and 15th of each month.
At his father’s grave Jong knelt on some pine boughs he had snapped off and bowed twice. He poured a little soju, a liquor, in three places around the mound (“three is a good number in Korea”), then we sat and shared the rest of the soju, some dried squid, and a few ripe persimmons. “We share this as though my father were alive,” Jong said.
“My brother sometimes goes to the Christian church, and Christians aren’t supposed to bow to others’ idols. But I tell him that he better respect this family tradition.”