On Saturday 14 November, protestors took to the streets of Seoul for the largest demonstration in at least seven years.
Estimates of the number of protestors present range from 60,000 to 130,000, with over 500 injured by water cannons, liquified tear gas, and pepper spray, 51 detained by police, and one demonstrator, farmer Paek Nam-ki, left in critical condition. Protesters were also sprayed with blue paint, so they could be identified for later arrest.
Paek was named as a “professional protester” by Choi Hyun-jun, president of Unification Future Alliance, who also alleged the protestors were “pro-north, anti-state, and anti-liberal democracy”.
Protestors also marched through Seoul on Saturday 5 December, but in much lower number than on 14 November despite courts refusing to grant the government an injunction banning the protest.
The anti-government demonstrations specifically protested several issues, including Park Geun-hye’s recent decision to replace privately-published school history textbooks with a uniform, government-issued text, changes to laws, destructive rice imports, and quickly increasing youth unemployment. groups said the changes to the laws would benefit only the country’s powerful family-controlled conglomerates, known as chaebol, by making it easier to fire workers.
Student protesters said that the new textbook, to be issued by the government by 2017, would whitewash or even glorify the legacy of President Park Geun-hye’s father, former dictator Park Chung-hee, who was accused of collaborating with Japanese colonial forces in the early 20th century, and was assassinated in 1979.
In addition, it would obscure the historical relationship with North Korea, and inaccurately portray their “juche” philosophy. The government insists it is merely “correcting” the nation’s history.
During a news conference, Han Sang-gyun, the leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), pointed to a widening gap between the rich and the poor in South Korea, saying that the chaebol were “wallowing in cash” while an increasing number of workers were forced to work on poorly paid temporary contracts. Plainclothes police officers tried to detain Han under a court warrant that allowed them to arrest him for organising illegal protests in the past. Han escaped into a nearby building and later showed up at the main rally, calling on the crowd to march on the Blue House, “the heart of an unjust government.”
The KCTU, with a diverse membership spanning trucking, construction, autoworkers and public teachers, organised the rally as the crowd converged in central Seoul and tried to march towards the presidential Blue House. They were demanding Park step down from her position as president.
The KCTU headquarters were raided by riot police on December 22, 2013. Hundreds were injured, and six senior KCTU leaders were arrested for supporting a national railway strike which the government declared illegal.
The International Trade Union Confederation and the International Transport Workers’ Federation commented on the matter by saying, “The government of South Korea and its anti-union behaviour is again in the spotlight of the international community. Its actions run contrary to its obligations to the ILO... Further, the government is failing to fulfill its original commitment to the OECD, upon accession, to respect international labour standards.”
In 2014, the International Trade Union Confederation ranked South Korea as among the world’s worst countries for worker rights.
It was listed alongside China, Cambodia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh as a place where workers “are systematically exposed to unfair dismissals, intimidation, arrests and violence often leading to serious injuries and death.”
In response to the 14 November protests, KCTU offices were raided once again, as well as those of other groups. A total of 12 offices of eight groups were raided by the police on the same day.
“The groups are suspected of leading the illegal, violent protest, and we will secure evidence to find those who orchestrated them,” an officer from Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency says.
Park Geun-hye has said that protests consist of “terrorist elements” and has called for a ban on wearing masks, which was determined unconstitutional by an earlier court ruling. Park said, “In particular, masks in protests should not be tolerated. Isn’t that what the IS is doing these days, with their faces hidden like that?”
Many Korean activists were further shocked when a senior official in Park’s ruling Saenuri Party pointed to the routine use of force by police in America to justify Seoul’s crackdown on dissent. “In the United States, the police use their firearms to kill people, and in 80 percent to 90 percent of these cases, they’re ruled as justified,” said National Assemblyman Lee Wan-yeong, according to Korean press reports. “Isn’t that how government authority works in advanced countries?”
“This is really pathetic,” KCTU said in a statement. “We never expected [Park] to have any insight in democracy, but now we are left to wonder if she has any sense of judgement.”
“Our plan to hold the protests remains unchanged, and all responsibilities for events that may take place on Dec. 5 falls on the administration.” said Park Seong-shik, spokesman for the KCTU. “The KCTU has made it clear that (the Dec.5) rally will be a peaceful one unless (the police) block our path with bus barricades and water cannons.”
Defiance of the police ban on the 5 December protest comes on the heels of a banishment of another protest planned by the Korean Peasant League. The KPL had given notice of a plan to hold a rally drawing some 10,000 participants near City Hall in Jung-gu, central Seoul to police, who shot it down Saturday. The KPL plans to carry out its protest in defiance of the ban as well.
South Korean lawmakers ratified a free-trade agreement with China on 1 December and the KCTU plans to protest this action as well as the same issues it had in November. To increase pressure on the government, the KCTU says it will launch a general strike of its 680,000 members if the National Assembly moves to pass the aforementioned reforms.
It would seem that Park Geun-hye is simply taking after her father, who vowed to crush protests against his government, “even if it costs 30,000 lives.”