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Biggest protest since 1987 staged in Seoul

Some participants calling for ouster of the president  PLAY AUDIO

June 11,2008
Hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied last night in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, to urge the government to renegotiate the deal to import U.S. beef. [NEWSIS]

In the largest protest rally since 1987, demonstrators shouting slogans condemning the administration and holding signboards saying “Lee Myung-bak, Out” and “No mad cow to Korea” flooded the main streets of downtown Seoul last evening.

Police dispatched more than 20,000 troops to control the area near Seoul City Hall as liberals and conservatives dueled in massive street rallies to denounce or to support the Lee administration.

The protest against U.S. beef import resumption staged by a civic alliance, the People’s Conference Against Mad Cow Disease, outnumbered the conservatives, quickly dominating the streets.

The organizer said about 400,000 joined the protest, while the police estimate was a more conservative 60,000. “It is the largest gathering since the 1990s,” a police official said.

Marking the anniversary of the pro-democracy student uprising 21 years ago, liberals invited 1 million people to join candlelight vigils nationwide to denounce the government on a range of issues including the planned reopening of the Korean market to U.S. beef imports.

The alliance of 1,700 civic groups said about one million were expected to join the rallies nationwide to demand renegotiation of the beef deal.

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the June 10, 1987 student uprising. Lee Han-yeol, a student activist from Yonsei University, was hit by a tear gas canister shot by riot police at the rally and died on July 5.

Lee’s funeral took place on July 9, and about 1.6 million marched on the streets nationwide, including 1 million in Seoul, to mourn his death. Lee’s death also fueled public anger toward the Chun Doo Hwan administration.

Thousands marched from Yonsei University in Sinchon to City Hall downtown yesterday evening after a memorial service for Lee.

“I came here with my friends because I was so mad at the government,” said Kim Cho-rong, a third grader from Seoul National University Girls’ Middle School, at the anti-U.S. beef rally. “I hope the government will listen to the people’s voices and change its attitude.”

The organizer said yesterday’s rally is the 34th of its kind. Participants also paid respects to Lee Byeong-ryeol, who set himself on fire during a protest in Jeonju on May 25 and died Monday.

Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun appeared at the rally around 7:30 p.m. to talk with the protesters but received a cold shoulder.

Earlier in the day, the oval plaza in front of City Hall was occupied by about 7,000 members of conservative groups, including the New Right Union.

Minor scuffles broke out between the conservatives and the liberals, but no major incident was reported as of 7 p.m. The conservatives criticized the liberals for agitating the public and violating the nation’s right to law and order. The conservatives also urged lawmakers to ratify the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement.

Among them was Lee Se-jin, a 25-year-old Hanyang University senior majoring in journalism. Lee has become a celebrity among the conservatives since staging a one-man protest against the massive candlelight vigil since June 3.

“I respect the candlelight vigil participants’ opinions,” he said. “But I wanted to show that there are other opinions.”

As Lee continued his protest, about 30 supporters gathered around him. “As I stand here to stage my protest, many asked who is pulling my strings,” Lee said. “My string-pullers are my conviction, conscience and the people.”

To prevent the protesters from marching toward the Blue House, police put up barricades at major intersections in central Seoul.

Since Seoul and Washington reached a deal to resume imports of American beef, candlelight vigils have continued downtown. Police have used force to break up protesters when they march on streets, and violence flared over the weekend when both police and demonstrators used weapons to attack each other.

Crowd-control barriers began to go up around 1 a.m. yesterday, creating a traffic nightmare during the morning rush hour. It began without warning, and 10 lanes out of the 14-lane Sejongno were blocked.

The police used 60 shipping containers, 12 meters long, 6 meters wide and 2.7 meters high each, to build walls at three locations. Using cranes, police built a two-story, 5.2-meter-high wall by welding the containers together. This blocked roads leading to the Blue House, the U.S. Embassy compound and the central government complex.

“Barricades created with riot police buses had their limits, so we rented old containers,” said Lee Gil-beom, head of the public security bureau at the National Police Agency. Demonstrators have destroyed 47 riot buses so far during the street rallies.

“We believe the container barricades will block physical contact between riot police and the demonstrators,” Lee said.

President Lee said yesterday morning that no protester should be hurt.

“The top priority is the safety of the people,” Lee was quoted as saying by his spokesman.

In order to prevent protesters from using ropes to bring down the containers, police loaded each container with three tons of sand.

It is the second time that containers have been used as police barricades. They were first used in 2005 in Busan to block demonstrators from interfering in the APEC summit. At the time, 90 containers were used to build a wall, but demonstrators used ropes to pull 10 of them down.

The People’s Conference Against Mad Cow Disease, the organizer of the liberal rally, said 500 members will act as volunteer marshals to maintain peace during the street demonstrations.


By Ser Myo-ja, Park Sang-woo Staff Reporters [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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