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A Container Wall Dividing People
[Commentary] The police presence in downtown Seoul forecast growing demonstrations
Ida Grandas (jezaky)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-14 08:40 (KST)   
Suddenly a man gripped my arm.

"Don't go there," he said.

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I was on my way through downtown Seoul, passing by the Seoul City Plaza in front of City Hall. The big grass area was filled with people holding banners and fliers. Loudspeakers projected a speech over the crowd.

"They are all communists, it's dangerous," the man said and let go of my arm.

It started with the police buses. During the last month, I have been watching the number of buses with barred windows growing every day, parking around the governmental buildings in downtown Seoul. Then, the groups of policemen started to appear. I first ran into them at a street corner in the late evening. About 20 policemen, all in their early 20s, sat in a square position prepared with shields.

In April, when I first moved to Korea, the front pages of newspapers were covered by photos of newly elected President Lee Myung-bak and US President George W. Bush in a golf car together at Camp David. During the meeting, it became clear that Korea would import beef from the United States. Soon after, protests started to appear in the streets of Seoul.

Afraid that the new agreement would put Korea at risk of importing meat infected by mad cow disease, schoolgirls started the protests. Soon, others added their voices in a spontaneous way. There was no specific organization behind the protests, people just went out into the streets and showed their disagreement by holding candles.

The police buses and the groups of policemen I watched on my way to work in downtown Seoul soon functioned as a forecast of growing demonstrations. As more and more buses and policemen filled the streets, ten thousand people took to the streets in late night rallies.

Soon I realized how the protests seemed to divide people. Like the man who gripped my arm, other people in my surroundings showed fear or disagreement with the protests.

On my way home in the car, the mother of my host family started speaking about the protests. She seemed annoyed over the way people were protesting.

"They are just looking at it as a festival," she said, seemingly not liking that people were enjoying protesting. For her, these protests were not like the ones she was a part of in 1987. Back then, the military dictatorship in South Korea was put down by violent, mass protests. My host mother, like most other students, was out in the streets every day.

"Even when they get caught and put in the police buses, they are taking photos and laughing," she said.

As a supporter of the government, my host mother doesn't like that the protests have started so soon after Lee Myung-bak was elected.

"They are not giving him a chance," she said.

On Tuesday, June 10, the anniversary of the 1987 protests, I walked through a barricaded downtown Seoul. The police buses were lined up and a wall of large cargo containers had been put up, blocking the main street. A man is welding the containers together. The smell of the welding mixed with the smell of melted wax and street food. Fliers with anti-Lee messages were distributed everywhere and people were gathered in big and small groups, singing, discussing or listening to speeches.

The wall of cargo containers that blocked the main street were immediately decorated.
©2008 Ida Grandas

I got a call from a friend, an office worker, who was asking where I was. He was worried because he knows I am always downtown.

"I don't dare go downtown these days, it could be dangerous," he said. Before we hung up, he asked me to watch out.

I passed by a convenience store where the commerce was at its peak. A policeman was picking up about 20 ice creams from the freezer, and around a specially setup table with candles and paper cups, people were jostling.

"Ida," I heard someone say. I turned around and discovered Yu Cheong-hee squeezing herself through the crowd. I got to know Cheong-hee a few days ago. She is a passionate activist, a volunteer for the Migrant Workers Union, and active in the radical translation group Seoulidarity that is helping organizations with translations between Korean and English.

Together we tried to get through the packed street. Everybody seems to be out -- office workers, kids, student unions, labor unions, human right groups, environmental organizations, anti-G-8 activists, nuns, monks.

"This is what I like with the demonstrations. It was not the activist, but the common people starting the demonstrations," Cheong-hee said.

Cheong-hee herself is demonstrating because she doesn't like the president. She thinks he has made many mistakes since he was elected.

"It's not about only the beef anymore," she said, explaining that the beef issue only worked as a catalyst. Other things such as the free trade agreement with the United Sates, the growing privatizations, the raised tuition fees at Universities and the proposal to build a channel that would connect the two main rivers in Korea were already getting to be too much.

"He tried to change things too quickly," she said.

Someone came up to Cheong-hee and gave her a sticker. Cheong-hee stuck it onto her T-shirt. It was red and had an image of a girl holding a candle. Also, there is a message against "Cho-Joong-Dong," an abbreviation for Chosun Iblo, JoongAng Iblo and Donga Ilbo, the three major conservative newspapers in Korea. Cheong-hee said that they are all supporting the president and directing the information about the protests according to that. Cheong-hee was relying on other sources to get information, such as left-oriented newspapers and online news portals.

We managed to get close to the wall of containers. There was a group of people trying to keep the protests from using violence, urging everybody to use nonviolence.

"Actually, I don't mind violence," Cheong-hee said. She doesn't believe that nonviolence equals peace. She explained that even if the protesters did not use violence, the police and the government did, so the violence was more about self-defense.

"Cho-Joong-Dong order people to not use violence, but it is only a way to keep us under their power," she said.

The crowd started singing. Cheong-hee turned away from me, into the crowd and sang along: "The Republic of Korea is a democratic republic. The Sovereignty of the Republic of Korea resides in the people, and all state authority emanates from the people." The words are from the first article of the country's constitution.

The day after the demonstrations, there were few police buses downtown. The pavement was dotted with spots of wax and fliers were flying around in the wind, but it was calm. Then my friend, the office worker, called me again, asking how the situation was. He still didn't dare come downtown.

Fliers that said "Lee Myung-bak OUT" were everywhere.
©2008 Ida Grandas

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ida Grandas

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