중앙데일리

Protests trapped in violent cycle

Dec 30,2005
Jeon Yong-cheol was an average farmer, growing mushrooms in a southern rural village. Last Nov. 15, however, Mr. Jeon, 43, was in Seoul, on the ground as around him riot police confronted protesters wielding steel pipes. Mr. Jeon, who was among those protesting against the government’s opening of the rice market, died nine days later. Another farmer attending that day’s protest, Hong Deok-pyo, died Dec. 18.
Earlier this week, the Korea National Human Rights Commission announced the two had died of head injuries at the hands of police and public wrath swelled. President Roh Moo-hyun bowed his head in apology in a nationally televised press conference, the chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency resigned the same day and the police commissioner-general reluctantly stepped down from his post amid mounting public pressure a day later.
Amid the criticism targeted at the riot police, however, other voices are targeting the protest culture in Korea, which is often violent with protesters attacking police with steel pipes and setting fires. Observers say the violence is a vicious cycle played out between the riot police and protesters. Protesters blame the police for excessive use of force in suppressing rallies, while the riot police claim they’re only reacting to violence provoked by the protesters. This chain reaction has led to fatal accidents on both sides. Last September, a riot police officer almost lost his eyesight during a rally calling for the removal of the statue of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, when a bamboo stick with a sharpened point, brandished by a protester, caught his eye.
According to the police, there were more than 10,300 street demonstrations in 2005 alone in Korea, resulting in injuries to some 800 riot policemen. Up until November 2005, about 65 rallies involved violence, the police said. Although steadily declining, there are about 100 violent rallies a year, according to the police.
Earlier in December in Hong Kong, Korean protesters made international headlines after being detained during violent anti-globalization rallies against the World Trade Organization meeting. When apologizing for the two farmers’ deaths, President Roh said, “If there were no violent rallies where protesters wielded steel pipes, such a mishap would have not happened. Our society and the government should correct these problems.” Heo Gyeong-mi, a Keimyung University professor, said, “Under democracy, it is the basic right of the public to hold rallies to express their stance, but they must also be aware they cannot abuse their rights.”
So, what lies behind such violent protests? An answer can be found in Korea’s history of fighting for democracy against military regimes, when protests were the only way for desperate activists to rise up against injustice. Indeed, Koreans changed the course of their history through such rallies, later dubbed revolutions, as in the April 19 Revolution of 1960 which overthrew then-President Syngman Rhee and the June Struggle of 1987 against the then-military regime led by Chun Doo Hwan. The times have changed and the country now has its most liberal leader in history in the Blue House, but the tradition of violent protests remains. Professor Heo says, “For various civic and interest groups, protests have evolved into a measure to make the government negotiate and to achieve their goals.”
Ms. Heo continued, “The groups play hardball by holding rallies and occupying the streets, which only leads to inconvenience for the general public. Then the government makes hasty compromises so as to minimize public inconvenience, all to the benefit of the groups holding the rallies.”
To Kim Cheong-ju, commander of a Seoul riot police squad, the problem is not with all protesters but with a small core of agitators who incite violence at rallies. Mr. Kim, who was once injured during a violent protest, said, “The biggest problem is that such agitators spur the large number of protesters, as seen in the farmers’ rallies, to use violence. They tend to think that their mission is completed only when they physically collide with the police.”
Protesters, however, say that the police and the government must listen sincerely to why they are on the streets. Kim Dong-gyu, director of National Grassroots’ Solidarity, an activists’ group, said, “When the government pressures protesters to be submissive without listening to their voices, it will only lead to stronger resistance.” Park Seok-jin, a member of the Sarangbang Group for Human Rights, criticized the police response. “The deaths of the farmers were not accidents,” Mr. Park said, “It was the outcome of a police strategy to suppress the rallies with violence.”
Mr. Kim of the riot police squad countered, “It is hard to accept the blame that police ‘murdered’ the farmers. The leading protesters, who lured innocent farmers out to the streets with bamboo sticks and steel pipes, have to shoulder the bigger responsibility.” He added, “The police have changed the paradigm of dealing with protests from suppression to control.”
Activists like Mr. Kim, meanwhile, say the protest culture has changed with the times, referring to recent candlelight vigils as a more peaceful example.
The interviewees, however, all voiced the need for less violence during protests, hoping to avoid more tragic deaths like those of the two farmers. Mr. Park, the activist, said, “What’s needed most for peaceful demonstrations is for the government to listen to the protesters, and police efforts.” Mr. Kim, the riot policeman, said, “Everyone understands the intention of rallies and protests. However, protesters need to abide by the law for the arrival of a peaceful protest culture.”


by Chun Su-jin, Kim Seung-hyun


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