Republic of Korea: Anti-government Protests are Well Under Way

Seoul, South Korea (NEO) – As promised, on December 5th the centre of Seoul again became a scene for the new series of anti-government protests. The participants came out against the policy of the current Korean President – Park Geun-hye. They severely criticized, in particular, the reforms in labour legislation which she had initiated, as well as her project of having a single version of history textbook.

Just to remind you – about 70 thousand people took part in the latest demonstration and the event itself was marked by clashes between the activists and the police. Following this rather unfavourable experience both the authorities and some part of the opposition took all measures to avoid such a situation this time.

On November 30th the representatives from the Seoul Police Department made a statement that all participants of illegal demonstrations who would attempt to crash the police barriers or attack the police officers would be arrested.

Water cannons and other armed methods are announced to be used if any violence or cruelty from the protesters follows, or in case the protesters would attempt to break through the police cordons

On December 2nd the police searched the local KCTU offices (the key initiator of the latest protests). They said they were looking for ‘any accessories for rebellion’ such as pieces of pipes which had been used during the latest demonstration to fight with the police. On the same day the Prosecutor General said that he was planning to play hard against violence during the protests ‘to break the vicious circle’ and punish not only those who act violently, but also those who incites such actions. The Korean Prime Minister Hvan Kyo-ahn also said that any unlawful and violent protests should be eradicated for the sake of the superiority of legislature.

On the other side, some civil groups of protesters said from the very beginning that they were supporting the peaceful nature of the demonstration. According to the police representatives, they initially were not going to build the barriers out of buses or use water cannons, but they would not hesitate to apply all the above methods if necessary. ‘If necessary’ means the situation when the protesters would suddenly decide to march to the Blue House.

In these circumstances 30 representatives of the ruling party proceeded with an amendment to the Law About Demonstrations aimed to prohibit the participants to wear masks during the protest. The President Park Geun-hye also cried out against wearing masks and even compared the protesters with the notorious ISIS militants who also hide their faces. The masks were supposed to protect the person who wears it against further potential punitive measures. However, according to Gallup Korea, today 60 per cent of the surveyed are against wearing masks during demonstrations (32 per cent still support masks). On the other hand, 48 per cent of respondents argued against building barriers out of buses (42 per cent voted for) as they see such actions as provoking and able to cause the protesters to break these barriers.

It’s rather noteworthy, that the government didn’t want this demonstration to take place following the safety considerations and attempted to cancel it, however, this resolution was litigated and made invalid.

Finally the demonstration came off and despite many safety concerns it much more peaceful. People wearing masks were noticed during the demonstration, some slogans claimed the President to resign, but both of the sides behaved conspicuously polite, and those who attempted to tease the police were punished by the other protesters.

This time fewer participants came: 50 thousands (according to organizers) and 14 thousands according to the authorities. Among the key initiators were the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the Federations of Farmers Association and some other community groups. The previously announced slogans were revised and claimed to cancel the Free Trade Agreement between the Republic of Korea (domestic farmers were afraid of their failure to compete with the Chinese suppliers). One more claim laid down by the protesters was for the President to resign. They accused Park Geun–hye of ‘dictator-style’ behaviour and of copying her farther’s style (her father was the former leader of South Korea – General Park Chung-hee). The latter is somehow far off the mark, but mentioning Park Sr. and calling his family ‘pro-Japanese proponents’ is a distinctive feature of today’s political disputes, but it’s going to be another story.

The leader of Korean Confederation of Trade Unions Han Sung Gyun didn’t attend the demonstration (he was hiding in the territory of Chogo Buddhist temple which serves as a refuge, because after the latest protests he is on the wanted list to be put to jail). However, he sent a video message with his speech where he was saying that the government would not be able to stop the rightful claims.

Image Source: ╬ಠ益ಠ), Flickr, Creative Commons flag

Image Source: ╬ಠ益ಠ), Flickr, Creative Commons
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The 30 deputies of the National Assembly from the opposition with the leader of the opposing party – Mun Ji In – were watching the demonstration but didn’t directly participate. Some of their statements were like “today is the beginning of the tradition to have peaceful demonstrations’, they expressed hope for the peaceful behaviour of the protesters and wished the police would let the whole event happen without incidents. 500 religious leaders also held a co-ceremony aimed at having a peaceful demonstration. The representatives of the ruling party shared the same view.

The protests were lasting for about 3 hours, after that it came to an end near the hospital where the 69-year-old farmer was under medical treatment. This person was the most seriously injured after the clashes with the police on November 14th.

Well, the peaceful protests are anyway good, the same as the lack of provoking actions. The next item on agenda is going to be a demonstration on December 19th, which might follow the all-national strike arranged by KCTU for December 16th.

We should consider these events in the context of the struggle within the opposing party where many members are not happy with the current leader. Jang Cheol-soo, the former co-chairperson and ex-contestant for the presidency, once again claimed that Mun Ji In should hold the party congress to discuss modernization issues which primarily means the change of leadership. In view of this the contestants will to their best to earn more political scores.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.