More than half a million people took to the streets of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, last Saturday in the latest wave of a movement that is shaking the government of Lee Myung-bak.
The movement sprung up in response to the government lifting the ban on imports of US beef in April, which exposed people to the risk of mad cow disease. Last month, following protests involving a million people nationwide, the government went back to the US to negotiate what it said was a new deal.
But it only came back with one change – to stop the import of beef from cattle over 30 months old. People know that there is still a risk.
The government has also increased repression. Several people from the movement’s leadership have been forced to seek refuge in a temple in the city after the state issued warrants for their arrest.
Lee Myung-bak has obviously decided to confront the movement head on. But this is a sign of weakness, not strength. He desperately needs to get the beef issue resolved so that he can move on to implementing more neoliberal policies. If he doesn’t then he will lose the ruling classes’ support.
The movement is very broad and involves students, bloggers, left groups, NGO activists and religious organisations.
It was started by high school students. In the high schools young people have to eat in the school cafeteria. Big corporations are engaging in the catering industry and people know that these are the ones who will buy the cheap US beef.
Parents joined the protests and health activists became involved in demolishing the government’s lies.
The movement is very confident. For example when the police shoot water cannons at the demonstrations, the protesters call for shampoo.
At the beginning the police tried to weaken and divide the movement by saying it is run by North Korean spies and agent provocateurs.
But the day after these accusations thousands of people started to log into police bulletin boards and say, “Actually I am the real culprit, here’s my address.” So the police had to back off.
The breadth of the movement is a sign of its success, but there are some arguments about where the movement goes from here.
It is becoming much more political – starting to include demands to stop privatisation of public services and the marketisation of education.
It is calling from Lee Myung-bak to go – and there are people who want to start impeachment proceedings. In just one week a million people signed up online to support the impeachment process. But there are some in the movement who want to contain it and stop it becoming more radical, or want to use the movement to gain a platform.
The Democratic Party that lost last year’s election has now got involved in the protests – we should not trust it.
Socialists in the All Together group are part of the coalition and involved in the steering committee. We have argued from the beginning that the movement needs to broaden its support and take up other issues. We are also trying to build links with the organised working class.
Some trade unions held a two-hour strike in solidarity with Saturday’s demonstration.
The metal workers’ union has said it will hold a four-hour strike later this month – although the details have been left to the union leadership.
The union leaders are very cautious but pressure from the rank and file is growing.
We have learnt about building a broad movement through our experience of the anti-war movement and participation in the World Social Forums.
We are growing – around 240 people joined All Together in just over a month.
Before this movement began there was a sense that the state was above us watching us. There is a change now – people feel the state should be accountable to the people. Democracy is a big issue.
The situation is volatile but the movement is still strong. And a whole new generation is coming into politics. The crucial test will be whether we can link the struggle with the organised working class.