Han Sang-kyun, the head of the nation’s second-largest umbrella labor union, ended 24 days of hiding at Jogyesa Temple on Thursday and appeared before police to be arrested on charges of leading illegal rallies.
At around 11:20 a.m., the chief of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions voluntarily walked out of the temple in central Seoul, where he had been taking sanctuary to avoid arrest.
The police officers immediately handcuffed him and took him by van to Namdaemun Police Station for questioning. He is accused of disrupting traffic, obstructing the execution of police duties, damaging police equipment and assaulting police officers throughout nine rallies held this year.
Police are also considering additionally charging him with inciting violence during the Nov. 14 antigovernment protest, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a financial penalty of up to 15 million won ($12,700).
Police said they will seek a warrant to take him into custody on Friday. An arrest warrant was issued for him on June 23 after he refused to appear for questioning.
In response, the KCTU renewed its pledge to stage an all-out strike on Dec. 16.
The KCTU, along with farmers and civic groups, led the Nov. 14 rally that saw clashes between the police firing water cannons mixed with tear gas and protestors trying to pull down police bus barricades to march forward.
While concerns remain over the use of excessive police force against public assemblies, the police claim that Han violated traffic laws by occupying major roads, illegally marching toward the presidential office and disobeying the police order to break up the rally held to commemorate the Sewol ferry sinking on April 16.
Han has refused to face the police arrest, saying that he should continue to fight against the government’s push for labor market reform. The relevant bills are currently being debated at the National Assembly.
After emerging from his hiding place at around 10:20 a.m., he paid respects at the main temple and held a press briefing in front of hundreds of labor activists, reporters, monks and Buddhist followers before being taken by the police.
“The government made me the most wanted man in this country for fighting against labor market reform bills that enable (businesses) to fire workers more easily,” Han said, wearing a headband with the slogan, “Abolish the temporary workers’ system.”
“The labor reforms (pushed by the government) crush the dreams of irregular workers,” he said. “Though I am detained today, I will continue to fight in prison and in court until labor market reform is stopped.”
Some 30 labor union members gathered around the union chief Han holding up placards reading “Opposition to labor market reform, please protect 20 million workers’ lives.”
The workers’ union has fiercely opposed the government’s push for labor policies that they said will give business more leeway to dismiss workers, extend hiring of irregular workers and cap the salaries of senior employees.
The government pushed for the measures in the hope to boost economy and create jobs for the young.
Han also expressed gratitude to the Jogyesa Temple that provided him with protection.
“I decided to voluntarily leave the temple as I could not sit back and see the police forcing their way into the holy, religious place,” he said, lamenting the police’s attempt to raid the temple.
Stepping up pressure on the indecisive main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, Han said the party should declare its stance to halt the labor market reform bill rather than weigh pros and cons at the negotiating table.
In the Buddhist temple that is kept peaceful and quiet in most other times, some 2,000 uniformed police officers surrounded the religious venue to prevent possible clashes.
As Han finished his speech, scores of temple officials formed a human chain to lead him into the waiting police van, while labor activists chanted “We are all Han Sang-kyun,” “President Park Geun-hye, step down,” and “Let’s resist labor market reform.”
“I am okay. Why do you cry?” Han told a union member shedding tears. Walking down the road, he hugged some of the unionists that lined the way.
The arrest came a day after the police suspended its operation to force their way into the temple to arrest him in response to monks’ repeated calls for a cease-fire at the height of intensifying tension on Wednesday evening.
The monks said a raid would be considered an act of religious persecution.
Several civic groups voiced opposition to Han’s detainment, lashing out at the government for cracking down on workers and thus undermining democracy.
On the other hand, a separate crowd, mostly in their 50s to 80s, gathered inside the temple and condemned monks for protecting Han, who they accused of attempting to overthrow the nation.
At Han’s request, the Jogye Order ― the nation’s largest Buddhist sect with several million followers ― has played a mediating role between the labor activist and the government since he took refuge there.
The temple, along with Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul, has served as a shelter for political and student activists seeking refuge from police crackdowns in times of authoritarian rule, notably under the military-backed governments of the 1980s.
As the Cathedral’s role as a shelter has since diminished, the temple remains virtually the sole haven for labor activists.
But the temple has appeared reluctant to provoke the police, asking the labor chief to voluntarily leave the temple to end “the vicious cycle of violence.”
The police were also seen hesitant in raiding the temple to arrest fugitives in the fear that it could trigger a public backlash.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com