|Supporters of the railway union strike push a plainclothes policeman out of Jogyesa Temple, the main temple of the Buddhist Jogye order, located in downtown Seoul, Wednesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)|
Tensions mounted around Jogyesa Temple in Seoul on Thursday as police surrounded the headquarters of the country’s largest Buddhist order to apprehend four railway strike leaders who took refuge there.
Railway union members, including deputy chief Park Tae-nam, wanted for his involvement in leading the strike, entered Jogyesa Temple late Tuesday.
Police deployed some 250 officers to surround it and operate checkpoints on its grounds.
The railway union has staged the general strike since Dec. 9 in protest of the government’s plans to place a subsidiary of state-run rail operator Korea Railroad Corp. in charge of a new KTX bullet train route. Despite repeated denials from the government and KORAIL, the union claims that setting up the subsidiary is a step toward railway privatization.
With no precedent of the authorities forcing their way into religious facilities, it is considered unlikely that the police will attempt to enter the temple to make an arrest.
Since the 1980s, Jogyesa Temple and Myeong-dong Cathedral have served as havens for labor and democracy activists wanted by the law. However, the Catholic Church and the Jogye order have distanced themselves from such developments, requesting protestors to leave, while Jogyesa Temple even requested police intervention in 2002.
Meanwhile, the railway union announced that the strike would continue despite its leaders going into hiding.
“The union’s leadership remains intact and strong. The leaders are directing the strike and the union remains unshaken,” railway union public relations chief Baek Sung-gon said on Wednesday.
“The leaders are in hiding as they are wanted, but they will make a public appearance in the near future.”
Baek added that the railway union strongly opposes the police’s decision to seek a warrant to detain Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union chief Kim Jeong-hoon.
Kim was arrested during the Dec. 22 raid on the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions’ office for throwing broken glass at police officers. He is said to have thrown some 300 pieces and caused a 1.5-centimeter gash on a police officer.
Kim is the only one of the 138 unionists taken into custody that the police were seeking to detain.
As the police maintain a large presence around the temple, the main opposition Democratic Party raised concerns over another police raid, calling on the authorities to resolve the issue through negotiation.
“This is not the time for forceful suppression. I say again that conversation is the only means to resolving the situation,” DP spokesman Rep. Kim Kwan-young said.
“If the government and the ruling party take a step back and cooperate with the opposition’s suggestion of making a one-point revision to the Railroad Enterprise Act, all problems will be solved.”
As a means to ending the strike, into its 17th day, the DP suggested including a clause against railway privatization in related regulations.
By Choi He-suk