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Korean Protests Take Center Stage at WTO
[Updated] Hong Kong sees more violent clashes with protesters, including Koreans
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2005-12-17 11:00 (KST)   

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[Update: Dec. 17]

Late Saturday afternoon, approximately 1,000 protesters, many of which were Korean, broke up into groups and attempted to approach the Hong Kong Convention Centre, the site of this week's WTO talks. From various points, the protesters tried to breach the heavily guarded police lines and rush toward the meeting area.

At one point, the protesters, some wielding long bamboo poles, clashed with police in full riot gear and protective shields. The police sprayed the potesters with pepper spray and hit back with batons. A few protesters picked up a metal gate and used it to charge the police. They succeeded to break through the lines and get within 100 meters of the convention centre, where the clashes could be heard by the delegates inside.

The police then deployed a water cannon, turning it on the protesters and when that failed, used tear gas to disperse them. Early Sunday morning, many Koreans still remained at the site.

At a press conference late Saturday evening, Hong Kong Commissioner of Police, Dick Lee called the protest a "major confrontation" and defended police actions saying the 2,000 officers deployed were "under attack." According to Lee, 900 protesters were "rounded up" and 41 people were injured, five of which were police officers.

Elizabeth Tang, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong People's Alliance, a local group coordinating the WTO protests, accused the police of provoking the South Koreans. The buses used to transport them from the protest site to their hotels were frequently stopped by police beginning from Dec. 13. Other delays were caused when police impounded a vehicle carrying the Koreans' audio equipment for over two hours for no apparent reason. The police were also criticized for indiscriminately using pepper spray and for escalating Saturday's protests by being ill prepared and overreacting with water cannons and tear gas.

Meanwhile, the WTO talks sputtered along amid claims by EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson that they were "going backwards." By late Saturday evening, reports emerged that a limited agreement had been drafted but was lacking a date for ending farm export subsidies, a key demand for developing countries.

WTO Anti-Poverty Sculpture
©2005 D. Kootnikoff
[Dec. 16]

The biggest story to emerge from the WTO Doha Round this week in Hong Kong is not that the U.S. and EU failed to reach a deal to help the world's least developed countries. That outcome was already known weeks before the MC6 rolled into town.

The big news so far is the failure of Hong Kong's media to reflect the whole story surrounding this conference. In fact, they stand accused of actively promoting a climate of fear and neglecting the substance of events.

For months leading up to the WTO the local press has been focusing on the Korean protesters, anticipating confrontation and fueling speculation that they would engage in violence and even suicide once in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Immigration Department has detained and harassed protesters at the airport and has been accused of using a so-called "black list" to target certain high profile demonstrators. The Hong Kong police reportedly sent observers to the November APEC meeting in Pusan in preparation for this week's WTO protests.

Koreans Speak Out

At a news conference in Hong Kong's Victoria Park on Thursday, Korean Peasant League spokeswoman and translator Julie Cho said "The press has been more focused on our more sensational and visible performances."

Lee Chen, a unionist representing Korean farmers, accused the local press of only reporting negative and speculative stories, such as whether the group would engage in suicide as a protest option.

Korean Peasants League Banner
©2005 D. Kootnikoff
Indeed, a look through the local media reveals an overwhelming emphasis on the more sensational actions of the Koreans. Repeated references have been made to the suicide in 2003 of farmer Lee Kyung Hae, skirmishes with police and the Korean's leaps into the filthy Victoria Harbour. Condemnation reached new heights when a TVB reporter was verbally chastised on air by demonstrators for filing a story wearing a crash helmet when there was no sign of violence.

Only when people began to demand more relevant information did the media begin to address the reasons for the protests. However, limited attempts by the local press to give voice to the issues of the protesters remain dwarfed by speculation that the Koreans will escalate their protests.

Sung Seung Ki, a 48-year-old leader of the Yeongju farmer's union, explained that "Policemen are not our real enemy. We are put in a fighting position by a bigger power that we can't control."

"Down, Down WTO"
©2005 D. Kootnikoff
He went to say that his livelihood and those of his fellow farmers was destroyed when South Korea joined the WTO in the late 90s. Most South Korean farmers owe huge sums of money, according to Sung, and resort to desperate acts when they feel they can't repay their debts.

Korean Rice farmer Lee Ha Young, who joined the Korean Peasant's League in 1984, claimed the average annual income of 24 million won (US$ 23,683) hasn't changed in 10 years. "What we want is for the WTO to acknowledge our bleak situation. We feel a sense of desperation, urgency and anger," said Lee at Thursday's news conference.

Han Do Sook, a pear farmer for 20 years, was one of the protesters who threw himself into the harbour on Tuesday. "We were all of one heart and if it would get our voices heard by the WTO, I would do it again," he said.

Hong Kong Legislator Impressed

The Korean delegation of protesters has provided a valuable import for Hong Kong's number one demonstrator -- legislator Lueng Kwok-hung, commonly known as "Long Hair." He was on the frontlines with the Koreans for the opening day of the WTO on Dec. 13, got a face full of pepper spray and a whack on the head. He expressed admiration for the discipline and tactics of the Koreans: "I am impressed with their discipline, where they listen to their leaders. Compared to them, protesters in Hong Kong have much less discipline."

WTO Protest Quilt
©2005 D. Kootnikoff
On Thursday, the Korean protesters surprised the police and media by engaging in a 3-hour peaceful protest. About 1,000 marched from Victoria Park to the Wan Chai protest zone in a Buddhist-style protest, stopping every few steps to bow down on the ground. "It's a very exhaustive Buddhist ritual," Cho later explained.

On Friday afternoon a group of Korean protesters pushed their way past security guards up to the 5th floor of the building that houses the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong to conduct a sit in. Another group staged a "shave in" at the U.S. consulate, cutting off all their hair. The group then sprayed "No Bush" and "Down Down WTO" in red and black paint on the outside of the building.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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