The largest protests in years held in central Seoul on Saturday spiraled into violence, with police firing tear gas and water cannons to stop antigovernment protestors from marching toward the presidential office.
The rallies, led by labor, civic and farmers’ groups, took place in protest against the government’s push to reintroduce state-authored history textbooks, reform the labor sector and open the agricultural market.
Police estimated some 64,000 people took to the street for rallies throughout the nation’s capital and a mass march toward Cheong Wa Dae, the largest ever since the street protests against the import of U.S. beef amid fears of mad cow disease in 2008. The protest organizers projected that as many as 130,000 gathered for the protest that stretched late into the night.
The protests started to turn violent at around 4:30 p.m. as police clashed with demonstrators attempting to march through Gwanghwamun Square toward the presidential office by pulling down barricades set up by police buses.
The clashes left one critically injured, 51 arrested and 50 police buses damaged. Some 113 police officers were wounded while the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the nation’s two major umbrella groups, claimed at least 500 were injured by the “excessive use” of police force.
Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old farmer, underwent brain surgery at a hospital after he fell and hit the back of his head as police doused him with water cannons near City Hall, according to the Korea Peasants League. He was pulling the rope to move the police buses at the time.
On the road from Jonggak Station toward Gwanghwamun Square were mostly young students and citizens holding candles, demanding the government salvage the Sewol ferry as soon as possible and withdraw its plan to adopt state-issued history books.
The state-authored history book has triggered an ideological feud, with critics denouncing the government’s plan as an attempt to beautify the past dictatorial governments and bloody transition toward democracy in the 1980s. Conservatives argue the current history books are biased toward left-wing ideology.
“I made my way to show my objection to the government’s plan for history textbooks. A history textbook should not be a script that can be written by a winner,” Lee Hyun-ju, a 19-year-old student in a school uniform, told The Korea Herald.
“I am not sure my participation can change anything, but I had to do something,” said Lee, who took the national college exam Thursday. “But I cannot find a way into the rallies because police buses blocked all the paths.”
On the other side of the police barricades, hundreds of citizens, blocked from joining the march, watched from a distance as the police fired water cannons into the crowd from the tops of their buses.
Many of the protestors shouted in anger, “Don’t shoot the water cannon,” “Stop the water cannon” and “Violent police, step back!” as the police continued to order the crowd to disperse and spray the water mixed with tear gas.
The police said it mobilized about 22,000 police officers, 700 police buses and water cannons to shut Gwanghwamun square from the protestors. The police earlier this week banned the march, citing the traffic disruption, and pledged stern action against what it called any “illegal acts” during the protest.
On Sunday afternoon, Justice Mister Kim Hyun-woong vowed stern action against protestors who led what he called “violent, illegal” rallies.
“Our concern became reality as violent, radical protests took place at the heart of Seoul,” he said. “We allowed legal, peaceful assemblies to a great extent, but some protestors committed violence by using illegal weapons like steel pipes to beat the police.”
Throughout the hours-long stand-off between police and protestors, the police made a series of announcements, saying, “You are causing a serious traffic disruption here, which is illegal under the Korean law. We are officially taking pictures of your faces to arrest those who commit illegal acts. Don’t push police officers or beat them.”
Despite the government’s denunciation on violent protesters, controversy also brew up over the “excessive” police force.
According to the law, water cannons and dangerous chemicals like capsaicin, a chemical that can cause irritation and burns, can only be used at the minimal level to enforce the law. Using police buses as barricades was ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court in 2011. The court said surrounding the protest site with police buses violates public rights for free movement.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concerns about what it called “severe restrictions” placed on the right to peaceful assembly including the use of bus blockades in its recent recommendations for the Korean government.
Maeng Haeng-il, 73, accused President Park Geun-hye administration of breaking the Constitution by stifling freedom of expression and mobilizing the police for its own sake.
“I feel like we are in the 1970s again. President Park is doing exactly the same thing as her dictator father did during his presidency,” he told The Korea Herald, referring to her late father and former President Park Chung-hee.
“Democracy is backtracking,” he said, holding a candle as he watched the protestors on the other side get drenched with water. “The traffic disruption cited by the police is just an excuse (for the crackdown).”
Near City Hall, another group of protestors, mainly composed of civic groups, labor unions and farmers’ groups, carried flags and banners and chanted “Park Geun-hye, step down” and “No layoffs” in protest against the government’s labor reform plan. The Park administration has been pushing for reforms to make the market more flexible, to create more jobs for youth and boost the nation’s sluggish economy.
Labor groups, however, have been fiercely opposing the government plans to allow employers to lay off workers more easily, adopt a peak wage system and extend the length of hiring period of irregular workers, viewing them as only benefiting businesses.
Many of them, masked and wearing raincoats, the protesters responded more violently to the police action, demanding the government to open the path toward Gwanghwamun Square.
Some of the radical participants went as far as pulling down some of the police buses by tying ropes to the vehicles, smashing their windows, throwing bricks at the police and attacking officers with steel pipes and poles.
Some protestors coughed due to the tear gas, desperately asking for water from people around while continuing their attempts to break the police barricades. “Don’t shoot the water cannon in people’s faces,” a protestor shouted.
A 23-year-old student at the University of Cambridge said she had collapsed after being hit by the tear gas-mixed water and had to crawl out of the mass.
“I cried out, ‘rescue me,’” said Park Eun-young, who came with a group of students to join the rally against the state-issued textbook scheme. “I should get home now to clean off the tear gas, but I cannot get out because of the police buses.”
The protests reached a peak at around 9:30 p.m. when a group of labor union members appeared with torchlights. One of them attempted to throw the firebomb into the police, while others just held it amid cheers from fellow demonstrators.
Many citizens had to detour to pass through central Seoul during the day as the police set up the barricades early in the morning, with some of them complaining about the disruptions. Police officers wearing a vest with distinctive orange signs helped the citizens find a way to get around.
“With the oil leaking from police buses, the pavements are extremely slippery,” a 20-something office worker said on the pavement in the closed Gwanghwamun Square. “I had to walk for hours to find an exit, but I cannot complain because I agree with what protestors do.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org