On Mass Protests in South Korea
November 14 saw central Seoul become the scene of anti-government protests and clashes between protesters and the police – the most violent since the summer of 2008. Back then the capital gathered to stand up against imports of US beef, which were believed to be at risk from contamination with mad cow disease.
Tens of thousands of protesters with candles gathered to demonstrate their unhappiness with policy of Lee Myung-bak.
According to the protest organisers, it was attended by 130 thousand people. According to authorities, 68,000, which in itself is a lot. Among the dominating reasons for protest were the government’s planned reform of labour legislation and the policy of creating a standardised history textbook for secondary schools and universities.
The first reason for protest is rather controversial, and due to the fact that the authorities are proposing the procedure of workers dismissal to be made more “flexible.”
Formally, this is owing to the fact that most corporations still operate a policy of “lifetime employment”, and this means that if an employee has served the company for a relatively long time, he or she can only be dismissed for an extraordinary offence.
If an employee is simply ineffective at work, it is possible to “transfer someone laterally”, but not get rid of them entirely. On the one hand, this generates a bureaucratic overload, and on the other, it makes it difficult for the Korean youth, among whom the unemployment rate is very high. The positions that they could be hired for, are still taken up by these old “hangers on”.
It is this group of “old-timers” and the Korean trade unions who are speaking out against the updates to the legislation, believing that the new system will set in motion the dismissal of not so much unnecessary but those who have fallen out of favour, and result in any protest against working conditions ending with dismissal.
And seeing as one of the main driving forces of the protests are the trade unions themselves, it is no wonder that “no layoffs!” became one of the main protest slogans on November 14.
Here it is worthwhile noting that although the number of trade union members in South Korea is on the rise, they still only comprise 10 percent of the Korean working population. This is down to both tradition and the policy of the authorities. For example, companies have only been allowed to establish more than one trade union since 2011.
The second idea of the authorities that has attracted criticism is that of a standardised history textbook, which has already been discussed by us in a series of articles. According to the authorities, the majority of current textbooks lack adequate criticism of North Korea, and do not sufficiently foster a sense of pride for the homeland.
According to the protesters and the South Korean academic community who have shown them great solidarity, there is a great danger that the new textbook will simply be a means of brainwashing used as the mouthpiece of right-wing conservatives.
Naturally, they are banging the drum about the fact the current president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of President and General Park Chung-hee, who, on the one hand, was a dictator that suppressed democratic freedoms, and on the other, oversaw the Korean economic miracle. These family ties will mean the legacy of Pak Sr is whitewashed.
53 different social organizations took part in organizing the protests, including trade unions, and both sides prepared for a “tough fight” just in case. Both sides urged citizens not to come to the city centre without due need, and to travel only by the Subway.
The police were on high alert, and Gwanghwamun Plaza in the Seoul city centre, where the main demonstration was set to take place, was blocked by a “wall” of buses to prevent demonstrators approaching the presidential administration. The 700 buses were specially coated with oil so it was not easy to climb atop them.
As expected, the protests didn’t pass without incident. According to some commentators, impenetrable police barriers usually are like a red rag to a bull to Korean demonstrators.
But when the protesters began to storm the barricades of police buses blocking off the street, water cannons were used against them. The water was mixed with capsaicin, an acidic substance that is contained in pepper (and used in tear gas), and blue paint in order to mark the protesters too.
However, the protesters were prepared. Most of them put on plastic raincoats beforehand, some brought ropes and other equipment to mount obstacles, and some had bamboo sticks or bits of pipe.
Of course, it was a far cry from the uprisings of the 80s and 90s. Back then both sides employed far worse tactics: protesters threw bottles with gasoline, the police used tear gas, that caused a specified point of the eyes to sting hours later, and hired martial arts masters with metal straps on their gloves. But since the beginning of 2000, things have cooled down and the number of victims has decreased on both sides.
51 protesters were arrested, 29 were injured and taken to hospital, a 68-year-old farmer even had to undergo emergency surgery after he was knocked down by a water cannon. He smashed his head and lost consciousness.
What’s more when his fellow protesters tried to drag him out of harm’s way, the police began to bombard them with the water cannons disrupting them from providing the victim with assistance. Several police officers were even injured and numerous videos clearly allow both sides to blame each other of excesses (which they are doing right now).
In some cases the police are clearly behaving unacceptably, and the same can be said for the raging protesters who hurl metal objects and stones at the police.
The police also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to arrest the leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions Hang San-gun. Formally, because he was previously involved in organising an unsanctioned protest.
In fact, it was because the KCTU under his leadership is the main union of left wing unions that castigates the authorities for increasing social stratification and widening the gap between rich and poor.
In particular, for the fact that more and more workers are being forced to work on temporary contracts without entitlement to a full benefits package and at a lower rate. Plain clothes officers tried to detain him, but he hid in a nearby building, and then turned up in the middle of the crowd, calling for a march on the Blue House.
Some left wing authors even called the protests a popular uprising, but that is clearly wishful thinking. Of course, the scale of the protests indicates the mass dissatisfaction with the current government, however, the left are not strong enough yet.
Incidentally, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is promising another protest on December 5, and on November 23, 12 of the headquarters of eight trade unions, including the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, were searched.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.