Saturday, June 18, 2011

Police over-reaction to student protests in Seoul

I wrote here about the similarities between the city centres of Seoul and Beijing, both cities designed philosophically with a large gate in front of the imperial palace, and now a large public square in front of that large gate. Like Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Seoul's Gwanghwamun square is decidedly apolitical.

I'm someone who is, unfortunately, liable to fly into rages at the sight of procedure for procedure's sake only. Traveling through an airport with me is to listen to me explain, at 175 decibles and 175 words per minute, why there's no point in confiscating water bottles and toothpaste because someone could build an actual bomb out of the alcohol and other chemicals sold after the security checkpoint.

For the last two weeks or so in Seoul, university students have staged protests aiming at halving tuition fees. Protests in Korea are not quite the same as elsewhere. They're long, drawn-out, persistent, intense and with staggering numbers. Just before I came here in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people protested the import of American beef, and they were hardly the first example of massive protests which were able to paralyze a part of the city.

By contrast, the current student protests are comparatively small. I don't know what the numbers are, but the night I saw the protest, it was at most 500 people on a sidewalk in front of a cell phone store. They were banned from entering Gwanghwamun by a line of police officers ringing the square. No doubt the numbers have since grown, but this is not a protest with tens of thousands of people.

Why, then, are there so many police officers in central Seoul? When I was at Gwanghwamun last night, I passed about a half dozen police buses and another dozen or so trucks with cages in the back on the west side of Gwanghwamun. In the south end of the square itself, there is an underpass leading to a subway station. There were maybe 100 police officers standing there, as this poorly-taken picture shows.

There was not a protester within about a kilometre of these protesters. They were facing an empty underpass filled with closed stores leading to a subway station. At the south edge of the square, in front of the statue of Admiral Lee, was this group of cops, facing traffic and people out for a walk on a warm night.

Across Taepyeong-no, by the Kyobo bookstore at the southeast corner of Gwanghwamun, were these cops:

Fifty metres behind those cops, in front of the Kyobo bookstore itself, there were another 200 cops or so. Two blocks from there, on both sides of the intersection, were similar-sized groups of cops just standing there. Altogether, I probably saw about 1,000 police officers last night.

However, what I didn't see was a single protester. The protest wasn't happening at Gwanghwamun or Jongno, it was happening at Cheonggye Plaza almost a kilometre away. These cops were presumably there for backup in case things got ugly, but they were probably maintaining about a ten-to-one ratio of police officers to students.

I don't know if that's necessary, but what I do know is that crowding the centre of the city with police officers, police buses, sound-making buses(?), large vehicles that hurl tear gas and generally doing your best to intimidate civilians with numbers and vehicles is obnoxious at best. Much of the government's 1960s-like chiding of student protesters is that they are inconveniencing residents with their protests, but what exactly happens when you flood thousands of police officers and their buses into public spaces?

This sort of pre-emptive paranoid precaution is what they do in China and other places where they are terrified of public opinion. South Korea is decidedly not a country like that; the students have no issue making their voices heard. Yet, despite peaceful protests by what is a relatively small number of students, the government and the police respond with clumsy ham-handedness of the highest degree.

Case in point of the ham-handedness of the old generation which surely enrages the younger generation:

This is a request by the Seoul police asking journalists to not refer to the student protests as candlelight rallies, but to instead use the phrase "illegal night protest". Instead of mentioning the fact that these protests are about tuition fees, journalists are asked to use the name of the student group involved in this. Candlelight rallies have become very popular in the last decade, and the police apparently has a very active interest in denying students the legitimacy and populism conferred by that term.

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