[Outlook]Following the rules

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[Outlook]Following the rules


A horrible incident took place during the crackdown on protesters in Yongsan, central Seoul, who opposed a redevelopment project in the area. Many wonder whether police suppression of protesters was unreasonably excessive.

No matter their reasons, it seems that police will likely be held accountable because six people died in the incident. In 1989 when students at Dongeui University in Busan protested, the seven fatalities were all policemen. It is unusual that five civilians were killed in a protest crackdown.

One wonders why the police decided to use so much force only 25 hours after the protest began. There was no deadline and it was not a military operation. So why was the police in a hurry? Was it because the police were worried that the Molotov cocktails protesters were throwing could harm passersby or nearby buildings? That is not a very persuasive explanation.

As many sectors emphasize speed these days, it seems the police wanted to stop the protest as soon as possible. Suppressing protests requires patience and care, particularly when protesters are on an upper floor with barricades of all sorts of flammable objects and explosives. Such settings can easily produce casualties.

A protest area is not a construction site or a battlefield where time is in short supply. Negotiation experts must work to persuade protesters to accept a compromise. Even when a SWAT team comes in, it should wait for the right timing. This is a basic rule and common knowledge when police respond to terrorists holding hostages or protesters who dominate a certain place. But in the Yongsan incident, the police hastened their operation. When the police abide by basic rules and common knowledge, people trust them. When the police wait patiently, the people side with the authorities.

Sr. Robert Mark, who served as commissioner for the London Metropolitan Police in the early 1970s, said that the best way for police to operate in a democratic society is to win while appearing to lose. The people’s sympathy is a stronger weapon than water cannons, tear gas or rubber bullets.

But Britain’s police didn’t respond timidly to all protests. They just didn’t handle matters violently or aggressively, and police always had the public’s support when cracking down on protests.

P. A. J. Waddington, a renowned specialist in quelling protests, has analyzed measures against protests. His study showed that Britain’s police used persuasion in a bid to get collaboration from protesters, and Machiavellian tactics. In order to prevent protests from turning even more serious, the British police combine words and force appropriately. According to Waddington, when the British police failed to quell protests it was not because they lacked physical power but because they made wrong judgments.

In Korea, when the police respond to illegal, violent protests in a lukewarm fashion, many criticize them and ask why they can’t take hard measures like the authorities in the United States or Britain.

I’d like to ask why Korea’s politicians can’t faithfully follow democratic procedures like politicians in the U.S. or Britain. Just as democracy in the U.S. and Britain did not develop overnight, a mature culture in which police remain faithful to the fundamentals when responding to protesters will take time to develop.

It can’t be achieved quickly. When there is no trust from the people, excessive measures against protests only lead to more violence and extreme protest measures. The 200 years’ history of protests in the U.S. and Britain prove this.

It is worrisome that the recent incident in Yongsan could make people lose trust in the entire police force. In this sense, another victim of the incident is the police. First of all, a policeman died and many others were injured. Not many public employees work in as hostile an environment as the police.

Funding for the police shows this as well. In 1996, the police budget accounted for 5.5 percent of state spending, and in 2008 the figure shrank to 4.0 percent. Money designated for increasing efficiency in suppressing protests was cut substantially.

Rewards are small, while only responsibility is emphasized.

It is tricky to respond to protests. If the police respond strictly, they are criticized for overreacting. If the police show a flexible attitude, the people criticize them for not abiding by principles or that the police are too weak.

It seems that no matter what police do, they are criticized. In the recent incident, it looks like the person in charge of the police made the wrong judgment. But we must not criticize all policemen. When the police refrain from taking excessive measures and when the people trust them, we will have a mature culture for protests.

The writer is a professor of criminal justice at Hannam University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Chang-moo

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