[Viewpoint]No room for violenceKorea has become a place where illegal violence is common and where it sways society. We have seen a sledgehammer wielded in the National Assembly, and a catastrophe kill six people in Yongsan, Seoul. Violent protest is not new to us. It has been a Korean phenomenon for a long time.
Statistics from the last few years indicate that 12,000 group demonstrations are staged in Korea annually, which means an average of 35 protests per day. Of these, about 80 each year are illegal violent protests. In such protests across the country we find placards with aggressive messages. Illegal occupations are not rare, and professional protesters enjoy a brisk business. We are living in a truly combative society.
Korea’s law and order index is one of the lowest, along with Turkey and Mexico, among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Another statistic shows that the rate at which demands made through illegal demonstrations are granted is 29 percent, higher than the 25 percent success rate for legitimate procedures.
The social cost for illegal protests is 1.53 percent of the gross national product, about 12 trillion won ($8.76 billion) wasted every year. A pre-modern militant society has been established, where people can transcend law and order and profit by raising their voices and making unreasonable demands as a group.
The Yongsan incident is a disgraceful portrayal of Korean society. At the root of the tragedy is illegal violence. Those killed in the incident are the victims of a militant society. When the scene is lawless and smacks of terrorism, talking about “excessive suppression” is a luxury we cannot afford. A bigger problem is that a large, illegal and violent demonstration was tolerated in a country based on a constitution.
Of course, if the investigation into the incident finds excessive acts of suppression, riot police should be reprimanded accordingly. However, it is an issue that should be handled separately from the illegal violence that caused the catastrophe.
The government is responsible for preventing even a moment of illegality and violence. Public authorities should be held accountable for letting protesters bring in 60 bottles of paint thinner that could possibly kill, throw Molotov cocktails and use slingshots for an extended period. Police reluctance to act fanned the problem.
Behind the tragedy is the National Alliance of Squatters and Evictees, which has been leading violent protest for a long time. Its members, who have been trained to resist police suppression, stirred up and initiated the violent protests by rigging up a watchtower that functioned as a command center and combat base.
They are the violent forces that encouraged those in distress to fight against the government and the police and finally drove them to their deaths. The police investigation has found that they raised tens of millions of won from poor evictees to fund the struggle.
An attack on public authority, which protects the safety of citizens, is a challenge to citizens and the state. No cause justifies such violence.
We urgently need extraordinary measures to improve the protest culture. Groups that stage illegal violence in Korea are law-abiding when they go abroad. The government needs to respond firmly to any protest illegality so demonstrators don’t think they can misbehave on their home soil.
In order to establish law and order and rectify the violent protest culture, the law on assembly and demonstration should be revised and then strictly enforced. Preparing steel pipes, paint thinners and Molotov cocktails to resist public authority is not an expression of free speech and should be defined as illegal and strictly punished.
The government should not make exceptions for illegal demonstrations. Even the most trivial illegal act should be suppressed the moment it begins. And those who practice violence should be liable for civil and criminal charges.
Lastly, the government should never forget that protecting citizens and maintaining social order is its most fundamental duty. A country swayed by illegal protests has no future, and a government that allows such a catastrophe to happen is not a government at all.
If leaders cannot fully carry out this basic duty, they have no reason to be around. Without a basic sense of security, citizens cannot live in peace. If the government kneels before illegal protesters, it had better step down.
*The writer is the president of Liberal Democracy Research Society. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Kwang-dong