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Korean Airline crash gripping Kwangju

August 7, 1997

KWANGJU, South Korea (AP) _ For its audacious fight against military dictatorship in the 1980s, this southern provincial city has earned the nickname of a ``holy land for democracy.″

This week, it lost a leader who steered that fight. Shin Ki-ha, a legislator from Kwangju, was among 254 people on board a jumbo jet that crashed in Guam early Wednesday. The South Korean government said today there were 28 survivors.

Shin, 56, and his wife, Kim Jung-suk, 50, were traveling with 22 supporters to the U.S.-governed Pacific island for sightseeing. All but three in the group were killed.

Besides the group, five other Kwangju residents died in the crash.

``This city has lost too much _ a real, courageous leader,″ said Cho Jang-hyon, 22, a college student, who was volunteering at the opposition legislator’s office to help arrange his funeral.

The city of 1 million people was filled with praise for Shin _ even from political rivals.

``I always thought that he would someday be a great leader. We all should miss him,″ said Shin Sang-woo, a government party legislator.

Today, Shin’s office near the city center was crowded with 70 supporters. Many expressed disbelief that their leader had died. They embraced to comfort each other.

``He was this city’s political darling,″ said Choi Il-shik, looking up a large photograph of the lawmaker on the wall.

Next to it was a large sign indicating the late legislator’s ultimate goal to become president: ``Shin Ki-ha, the leader of the next generation.″

Shin, a lawyer by training, entered politics in 1984 when military ruler Chun Doo-hwan was tightening his grip on power after staging an internal army coup five years earlier.

Six months after Chun’s bloody coup in December 1979, tens of thousands of Kwangju citizens rose up against the government. Chun sent tanks and paratroopers to ruthlessly crush the protests.

By official count, 200 people were killed and more than 1,800 others injured in the bloodiest uprising in modern South Korean history. Critics put the casualty figures much higher.

Anti-U.S. sentiment is strong in Kwangju because of citizens’ belief that Washington condoned the military crackdown. Washington has denied it.

Even today, a visit to the city by the U.S. ambassador would make headlines in local newspapers. Militant students violently protested such visits in the past.

For most of the 1980s, Kwangju, meaning the ``town of light,″ 150 miles southwest of Seoul, lived with the stigma of a rebel city.

It was only in the early 1990s, under a more democratic government, that the Kwangju uprising was redefined as a ``pro-democracy movement″ and its victims were compensated.

Shin earned a reputation as a pro-democracy fighter. As a lawyer, he defended hundreds of people, mostly students, for their alleged anti-government activities.

Shin won a parliamentary seat in 1985 and has since been elected four times.

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