Tag Archives: May Day

Seoul May Day

3 May

I was in Jongro on Sunday for the afternoon. There were a larger-than-normal number of police buses parked along the thoroughfares.  Normally there are a few around Gwanghwamun and tucked back near Jogyesa, but this time they were everywhere.  Then I remembered the date: May Day.  I saw a bunch of students protesting for migrant worker rights at Bosingak, but they were doing choreographed dances in pink shirts — not exactly your hardcore streetfighting types.  I was a tad disappointed.  I’d missed out on the G20 protests last fall and I’ve heard of the Korean left’s reputation of welcoming confrontation, be it on the streets or in the National Assembly.  I mean, if you’re going to demonstrate, demonstrate, for crying out loud.  I thought I’d never get to see a protest, even a moderate-sized one.

I stood corrected as my girlfriend and I neared City Hall in our cab.  Traffic slowed to a crawl and cops in high-visibility jackets sprinted down sidewalks.  Our taxi driver was extremely polite toward us, but swore up and down at the protesters.  “Every year they have a fit like this and then do nothing the rest of the year.”  In describing their “fit,” he used the term 지랄, which in (quite harsh) slang means to thrash about like an epileptic.  A bunch of student protestors occupied the subway exit next to Deoksugung, blocking the stairs and chanting at the top of their lungs.  A cordon of police sealed them off and reporters scrambled around to get the best view possible.  The plaza was swarming with people, though nowhere near the number that could have been there.

We ate lunch and wandered up a hill behind Deoksugung to the old Russian legation, where Emperor Gojong hid out after his wife’s assassination by the Japanese.  You could still hear the shouting from City Hall rolling over Deoksugung and up the hill.  My curiosity was definitely piqued and I badgered my girlfriend into going down there.

There were no rocks nor brickbats sailing through the air, nor police clubbing pinkos, much to the chagrin of my Schadenfreude.  It felt more like a giant party.  I saw families walking past stop and take pictures amongst the crowds.  On stage a man was screaming at the top of his lungs, “Firing a worker is murder!”  A group of students, to the cacophony of drums and Korean horns, tore a banner to shreds in a mosh pit-like frenzy.  I looked at the pictures set up at different booths.  One accused Samsung Semiconductor of causing leukemia in children  through excessive pollution.  Another posted photos of a school teacher forcibly cutting a student’s hair to keep it in line with an old but no longer practiced policy of short hair.  In every case, hystrionics seemed to be consistent with the leftist attitude that any single incident of wrongdoing is a manifestation of the evil of the system as a whole.  Yet the system would not run without people; if there is corruption, it is because we, as humans, inhabit the system.  If that is so, how can one’s ideology be bent on turning power over to the masses, where corruption can therefore rule unchecked?  But that is for a different post . . .

Some displays, though, had interesting critiques, especially of thugs hired by either corporations or local government to forcibly evict poor people from their homes.  My girlfriend explained that under Lee Myung-bak’s adminstration, a great deal of development and renewal projects have been implemented.  While we would term what happens “eminent domain,” it appears in these cases to be more like theft.  Collusion between government and business is very tight here and while it produces incredible and rapid results, there is, from the photos of thugs slugging old women, a definite human cost.

I picked up a flyer about imprisoned labor activists.  Here’s one:

Han Sang Ryeol (한상렬), looking quite Korean in his hanbok and yangban-esque beard, was imprisoned for violating the National Security Law.  It’s an over 70-year old law that criminalizes anti-government or pro-Communist activities. While the law was intended to stamp out North Korean subversion, nowadays it is used more often for quelling dissent.  Han got a five year sentence.  Jang Min Ho (장민호) was arrested for violating the same law and is now serving a seven year stretch in Daejeon:

Other activists listed in the pamphlet were jailed for various strikes and for violently resisting a forced removal of tenants in Yongsan.  As I looked at this and other materials at the protest, I realized that I could not take a side in any of this.  I had no stake in the game, of course; it was not a bread and butter (or rice and kimchi) issue for me, just a curious sideshow.  But more so, this game was played by different rules, ones which my own principles could not easily align.  After all, this is East Asia.  Though Korea is a technically a democracy, that is a convenient surface fiction.  Democracy has come to mean in our post-modern minds the ability to vote, petition governments, and expect that the rule of law will be carried out.  Which is all well and good, and may explain much of how much modern Korea (or even Japan) functions, but it does little to explain what happens in the soul of the country.  Who is there to take sides with?  The labor activists who claim to speak for the people?  Yet many of them express if not outright solidarity for North Korea, then a least a desire for unification on terms less than punitive for the Communist regime.  Should I side with the chaebol and old guard, the conservative, big-business types who are bringing Korea fabulous new riches and security in the world?  If the photographs of hirelings beating up squatters are any indication, violence and corruption is not outside the pale of their means and in a way unthinkable to most Americans.

It reminded me that this is an old place.  These are ancient struggles for power.  The struggles may manifest themselves on the surface as normal election results and this deceives us into thinking that their nation has become something like the West.  But it is fundamentally an issue of identity.  Such struggles are reflective of what each Korean faction sees as best for the country.  And to speak of the country is not to speak of some civic institution as Americans conceive of it, not the government and laws representing the people.  Rather, the country is the people.  It is a struggle fundamentally racial, cultural, linguistic in nature.  Factions may utilize different ideologies in furtherance of their end, but they are ultimately tools to attain the well-being of the people, the minjok (민족).  This is the land of Confucius, not Jefferson.  Harmony, not liberty, is the end.

As we left the protest, crossing the street toward the Seoul Plaza Hotel, I saw what must have been the police chief in charge of the shindig looking about frantically.  He pointed east and, in full dress uniform, scuttled off, shouting into his radio, peons sprinting after him.  The protestors had broken the police cordon and, with flags waving, were sprinting down Sogong-ro.  My girlfriend and I wandered toward Namdaemun, which was packed with armored police, just waiting for a fight.  No protestors showed, though.  “Let’s find a coffee shop so we can watch every thing safely,” she said.  We wandered through the market, headed toward Myeongdong, when we saw a snarl of traffic and heard blaring bullhorns.  The protesters had occupied the whole northbound lane of Sogong-ro.  We ducked into the Lotte Young building and relaxed in the third floor coffeeshop, watching the protesters below shaking fists and chanting.

I asked my girlfriend if her mom remembered anything of the student movement protests during the ’80s, which was when she was a student.  “No, because she had nothing to gain.  She was just a rich girl, living in a nice part of Seoul, doing anything she wanted.  She didn’t care about anything but herself.  At least not until she became poor.”

The democracy protests were a huge part of Korean history during that decade and one which was most likely to have touched ordinary people.  Yet some folks, no matter how tumultuous the times, have nothing to do with the grand events.  They keep on doing what’s best for them or their family, making ends meet, trying to live well, be happy.  The question is, if everyone did that, from the mightiest to the meekest, would the world be better or worse off?

Eventually the protesters stood up, chanted and shook their fists in small circles for a few minutes, then rolled up their flags and went home as dusk closed in.

“I don’t think they accomplished anything,” my girlfriend said.  Happy May Day.