Thousands of protesters converged in South Korea’s capital Seoul on Sunday 11 November for the biggest demonstration in recent years. The protests had three focuses:
- to express opposition to the continuing deployment of Korean troops in Iraq and Afghanistan
- to stop the planned Free Trade Agreement (FTA) the government is signing with the US
- to support the struggle of the contract workers against the increasing casualisation of labour.
A fourth dimension was added the week before the protests when Samsung’s top lawyer resigned to expose a scandal of systematic bribery across all sections of the powerful in Korean society.
The government had declared the demonstration illegal – supposedly on the grounds that a demonstration 200,000 would cause chaos in the city and leave the police “unable to cope”.
The police across the country moved to stop people reaching Seoul. They set up roadblocks on major roads to block coaches and some 450 coachloads of protesters were stopped.
These included many farmers coming – usually among the most militant protesters.
Many who were stopped from reaching the capital made their voices heard locally and several police stations were raided and attacked.
Nevertheless, 40,000 did make it to the capital, and everywhere workers, farmers, students and anti-war activists were represented in an upbeat, defiant mood.
The protest began with a mass rally and workers’ songs. This was followed by a march through Seoul’s main political and business centres.
Police blockaded the roads with lines of armoured buses and thousands of conscripted riot police, and soon angry groups of farmers and workers marched against the police lines, raising ladders and attempting to scale police barricades.
They were met with water cannons and smoke bombs, but fought determinedly, eventually breaking through the police line.
The day ended with another rally of speeches, songs and even some dance groups performing anti-FTA songs.
One group from the southern region only managed to join up with the rally at about 7.30pm, just as it was coming to a close. They received warm applause for their determinaton to participate.
The demonstration was a culmination of the three main movements currently uniting the South Korean working class and a blow against the governments ability to reduce democracy with its extreme neoliberal agenda.
The planned free trade agreement with the US has sparked massive resistance. It annoys a range of people who see it as worsening the situation of workers, harming Korean farming and manufacturing, and damaging the cultural sector and film industry – to benefit transnational corporations.
Despite the censorship of anti-FTA TV adverts and an overwhelming barrage of pro-FTA adverts and propaganda, more than one in three people are still firmly against FTA.
South Korea’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is also deeply unpopular. In the last month President Roh Moo-hyun has admitted that becoming the third biggest troop contributor was a “historic mistake”.
Strangely, this is only a month ago he re-signed the mandate to extend the troop deployment for a fourth time, against the wishes of the 90 percent of the population who favour withdrawal.
Many of the demonstrators in Seoul were newly organised women service workers who are facing increasingly oppressive working conditions. The issue of workers in the informal sector has been the basis for many actions both in Seoul and across the country.
There are regular clashes between sacked or ill-treated workers and the police, who are always ready to protect the interests of bosses of huge profiteering corporations such as Homever.
Contract workers now make up around half the Korean workforce, but are paid on average half the wages of regular workers. Their new contracts often deny basic rights such as healthcare, notice for redundancy and even lunch breaks.
Hundreds of protesting workers and activists have been arrested, including 40 members of the socialist group All Together – five of whom are currently on trial.
The campaign against the casualisation of labour continues in the form of workplace occupations and demos that have the support of more than 70 percent of Koreans.
The final spotlight cast by the demonstration fell on Samsung, South Korea’s biggest corporation. It is accused of mass corruption by its own former head lawyer, Kim Yong-chul, who left the company this month to accuse the company of bribing the government, the judiciary, the police, the media and even university professors.
Most people are sceptical about this scandal coming to justice through the courts, especially as the case involves the judiciary itself, who predictably say there is no evidence to bring Samsung to trial.
So the demonstration was a manifestation of the deep-felt anger of many South Koreans at the lack of real democracy under the so-called liberal democracy that has been in place since 1987 when the military dictatorship was finally broken by a mass strike.
South Korea has kept its culture of protest alive in the face of continuing state repression and police violence that has remained a common component of democratic struggle. Choi Il-Bung of the All Together group summed up the general feeling on the day, saying “the protest has been very successful, even though the level of state repression here in this country is very high, and the government blocked many farmers from coming.”
The level of organisation and tactical manoeuvring by the various groups protesting gave the demonstration an air of determined experience. It was high spirited, but at the same time people were drawn together by a sense of seriousness and a shared consciousness of past, pivotal times.
The struggle is drawing in and radicalising new participants all the time, who are working alongside the stalwarts of the democracy and workers’ movements in the ongoing fight for a peaceful, free and equal society.