[Editorial] Profiting from repression

By Korea Herald

Korea should expand ban on tear gas exports

  • Published : Apr 13, 2014 - 19:43
  • Updated : Apr 13, 2014 - 19:43
Tear gas has not been used by police to disperse protesters in Korea since 1999. The decision to ban its use was made by the government of late liberal President Kim Dae-jung, who had devoted his political life to the country’s pro-democracy movement.

Over the decades before the military-backed dictatorial rule came to an end in 1987, tear gas used to pervade streets and college campuses across Korea as riot police or sometimes military troops clashed with citizens and students calling for democracy. It continued to be used, though less frequently, in the following years to quell violent protests by radical unionized workers and other interest groups, who had been silenced under the authoritarian regimes.

With the establishment of democracy, calls for stopping the use of tear gas mounted, resulting in the 1999 decision by Kim a year after being elected president. Since then, it has been replaced with water cannons. Being blasted by a powerful stream of water is far from pleasant but certainly much easier to endure.

The suffocating smoke of tear gas is still a vivid memory for Koreans in their 40s and older. About 1.87 million tear gas canisters are estimated to have been fired on protesters across the country in the 1980s. The deaths of a high school student and a college student hit in the head by tear gas canisters were decisive turns in the April 1960 revolution that toppled the authoritarian government of President Syngman Rhee and the June 1987 uprising that ended the military-backed dictatorial regime.

The disappearance of tear gas from streets of Korea did not mean its production had ceased, though. Since 1999, local manufactures have turned to tear gas demands from foreign countries, most of which are developing states going through the turbulent process of democratization.

Between 2011 and 2013, Korea exported millions of tear gas canisters to about 20 countries, including Bahrain, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malawi, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkey, according to the Defense Acquisition Program Agency. Its exports of tear gas was highlighted by the international community late last year when a Bahraini man in the U.K. sent an email to a civic group here, appealing for help in preventing tear gas shipments to the Gulf state. Nearly 1.5 million tear gas canisters were exported to Bahrain, where human rights groups estimate about 70 people have died due to its misuse.

Running out of tear gas, Bahrain early this year ordered an additional 1.6 million canisters, more than its total population of 1.3 million. Considering the negative international views, Seoul made the right decision in halting tear gas exports to Bahrain. Similar measures may need to be taken regarding shipments to Indonesia, Turkey and other countries.

Importers of tear gas from Korea may turn to other manufacturing countries if Seoul expands the ban. But as a nation whose modern history has been marked by bloody struggles for democracy, Korea has a moral responsibility to avoid helping inflict similar sufferings on people in other countries in their fight for freedom, justice and human rights. Most Koreans surely agree that profiting from repression is unacceptable.

Considering its security conditions, it is necessary for the country to build an effective defense industry. In this context, it may be hard to question Seoul’s goal of becoming a major arms supplier. But Koreans can and should stop letting protesters against oppressive regimes abroad fall victim to something they discontinued using against themselves long ago.