[NOTEBOOK]Bring back the tear gas

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[NOTEBOOK]Bring back the tear gas

Molotov cocktails and pepper spray are the symbols of radical street demonstrators and riot police.
The history of these two archenemies is a showcase of the country’s modern history. When society is chaotic, they fight fiercely on the streets; when times are settled, there is less confrontation between police and the disaffected.
Molotov cocktails started to appear in street demonstrations in Korea in 1983, when college students stepped up their protests against the authoritarian government of the time. But the dangerous concoction became a regular demonstration tool in 1985 when Korean college students organized Sammintu, a radical protest organization.
According to police records, an average of 1,000 street demonstrations were staged every year until the end of the Roh Tae-woo administration, and over 200,000 Molotov cocktails were thrown annually.
Street protests with Molotov cocktails were staged at least daily, averaging perhaps two per day.
Tear gas was introduced to Korea in 1952. The United Nations forces used the gas to suppress a rebellion on Geoje Island. In 1960, Korean police fired tear gas for the first time, against demonstrators protesting the corrupt election of March 15.
As the use of Molotov cocktails grew in the mid-80s, the police made frequent use of the gas. There was a time when every street corner in Seoul smelled of tear gas.
The use of Molotov cocktails dropped when the Yonsei University arson case of 1996 and violent demonstrations at Hanyang University in 1997 resulted in a public backlash that brought radical student organizations to their knees. In 1998, the police proclaimed a “no-tear-gas” principle because protesters had abandoned their use of the deadly gasoline in glass bottles with burning wicks. So even when riot police were beaten and policewomen were pelted with eggs, the police kept their tear gas in storage.
Five years have passed, and all the tools have gone rusty. You can find few police these days who know how to operate the tear gas guns that the police possess.
The street demonstrations by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions in downtown Seoul on Nov. 9 has shown that the police forbearance was a dangerous decision. Hundreds of Molotov cocktails flew through the air that day. On the very same day, a new deadly weapon, a slingshot to hurl steel nuts and pellets, made its debut. Critics urged the police to take out the tear gas again.
Where else in the world do policeman get beaten by protesters with pipes on the streets in daylight? What kind of country allows lawlessness like this?
The police must regain their ability to enforce discipline.


by Kim Seok-hyun

The writer is city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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