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South Korea’s 1987 “Tear Gas Festival:” The Path to Democratic Elections

South Korea was in a haze in 1987—both literally and figuratively. After years of de facto military dictatorship, the populace was demanding greater political freedom.  The path to more democracy was marked by massive protests and the pervasive haze of tear gas. For weeks, police clashed each night with up to three million people crowding the streets of Seoul.  A key demand: direct and democratic presidential elections.

Ruling party candidate and designated successor Roh Tae-woo triumphed in the presidential election in December, 1987 after the opposition split.  Two months later the opposition united and won critical legislative elections. The results surprised even the opposition, which initially repeated familiar critiques of government corruption and unfairness–rather than celebrate their own victory.

David C. Pierce arrived in Seoul in 1983 as a economic officer, and quickly recognized the close connection between the changing economy and the country’s volatile politics.  As the situation grew more tense, Pierce was asked to serve as a political/military officer. In that capacity, he covered the critical period of protests and transformation that embassy officers came to call the “tear gas festival.”

After South Korea, Pierce worked with refugees in Sudan and Thailand. Pierce finished his Foreign Service career as Consul General in Cape Town, South Africa, and retired in 1998.

David C. Pierce’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on March 10, 1999.

Read David C. Pierce’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Joseph Baldofsky.

It was what my friends in the newspaper business called the “tear gas festival.” It turned into a democratization festival.

A Democratic Demonstration:

In 1980 [Korea] had essentially what amounted to a military takeover again. The generals essentially took over and put down the revolt. They managed to blame [the U.S.] and get us blamed for it.

. . . The biggest thing that happened [during my time in Korea] was from about April until about the middle of July [1987]. It was what my friends in the newspaper business called the “tear gas festival.” It turned into a democratization festival. For months every night, two million to three million people a night on the streets of Seoul and other cities, but primarily Seoul, throwing Molotov cocktails at the police. The police responded with disabling quantities of tear gas. Massive, massive, every night. Very flashy, made the news every night worldwide because these Molotov cocktails would explode into huge flame balls.

Very few people were killed, in fact only three and then by accident in each case. I’m not sure it’s true, but the story was, as wild and as dangerous as it looked, there were less than 60 panes of glass in the city of Seoul broken the whole time. In fact it was very controlled. It actually looked like a giant street kabuki [a classical Japanese dance-drama]. It looked like a morality play played out on the street, which in fact it was because both sides were attempting to get the high moral ground; each side in some ways subtly was going to goad the other into overreacting and losing the high moral ground.

The issue ostensibly was direct election of a president. [Korean politician] Kim Dae-jung was insisting there should be a direct election of the president. On his behalf, the opposition was united on that ground. Roh Tae-woo was the designated successor. Riots ensued. They went on and on and on. People were exhausted….

“I’ve fought communists all my life, this is not how you do it….”

Turning the Tide:

We were anticipating that at some point [South Korean president] Chun Doo-hwan would pull troops out of a command that had ostensibly belonged to the Americans and put them on the street. Up until now only police were involved in this, but they were exhausted. They’d be up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and then they’d try to clean out every night and they were just wiped out, completely tired. We were tired, too. We were out covering this thing every night. He did, in fact, roll a couple of units out. We saw it. Ambassador [Jim] Lilley went and talked to Chun Doo-hwan directly and basically had a two-hour mano-a-mano, one on one, with him–and basically talked him out of it and stood him down. The essence of the conversation was, that Chun Doo-hwan believed the communists were after this. Ambassador Lilley looked at him and said something to the effect of, you know me, I’ve fought communists all my life, this is not how you do it; here’s how you do it. . . . I think shortly thereafter the government announced that there would be direct elections of the president.

“It was just that they were so used to working in this mode that it was almost inconceivable to them that from their perspective a totally corruptive government would actually let them in.”

Wait, We Won?:   The opposition [split] between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam.  The opposition being split could not win and did not win in a free and fair election. Pretty much every observer, except the opposition, agreed it was free and fair.  Once that split occurred, the Koreans knew what the outcome was going to be. As a result Roh Tae-woo was elected [president].

A couple of months later, in early ‘88… the opposition then united and won the legislative elections. In the first 24 hours, the newspapers were saying to the opposition, you won, congratulations–you won! The opposition was saying, the government lied, the government cheated, the government stole . . . They [seemed to be] working off their talking points as though they had lost the election.

. . . The high moral position was that the government was cheating and therefore you’d never get a fair result . . . [the opposition] couldn’t come off that right away. . . It was funny . . .  It’s not that they were not paying attention; they were. It was just that they were so used to working in this mode that it was almost inconceivable to them that . . . a totally corrupted government would actually let them in.



     BA in Political Science/Psychology/History, Dickinson College                       1962-1966

     Studied Political Science at Temple University                                                     1966

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                     1973

     Washington, D.C.—Economic Bureau                                                                     1979-1981

     Seoul, Korea—Economic Officer                                                                               1983-1985

        —Political/Military Officer                                                                                      1985-1987

     Khartoum, Sudan—Refugee Coordinator                                                                1988-1989

     Bangkok, Thailand—Refugee Migration Coordinator                                           1989-1992

     Cape Town, South Africa—Consul General                                                              1995-1997

Retirement                                                                                                                 1998