Party time at South Korea's protest 2.0 By Sunny Lee
SEOUL - This is strange. Even as anti-government demonstrations in South Korea
go, this is an odd, odd scene. Even a foreigner thinks so. "I have never seen
anything like this before," said Jeff Lazar, an American activist observing the
ongoing protests here over the import of beef from the United States. "It's
like a festival. They are even using a laser projector to write their protest
words in the air. It's effective because it's fun. It's also a sure
attention-grabber," he adds.
South Korea's infamously combative street protests have taken an unexpected,
and sometimes amusing, turn. It has become much more peaceful, but, mind you,
that's a relative term compared with previous practices. For example, during
the 40-day-long candlelight demonstration that started on May 2 - when 15,000
students unexpectedly took to the streets - and up to this Tuesday which
commemorated the June 10 Democracy Movement in 1987 that had bid farewell to
the decades of military rule, only one person has lost his life.
And the deceased was not killed because of a bloody clash with the riot police,
but because he set himself on fire.
Like any good festival, some people have come out wearing interesting costumes.
Lee Dong-keun, a 19-year-old freshman at Korea University, and a classmate wear
identical full-body tiger outfits. "I got a lot of pictures taken by media
people," said Lee with pride.
And the streets themselves are much cleaner because of people like Cho Eun-mi,
who volunteers to pick up trash, including empty soda cans, water bottles and
pieces of torn slogan-bearing placards. "I know some people frown on the
protesters. They think streets get dirty after protests. So I thought if I made
the street less dirty by picking up trash, then those people might also get
less upset," Cho said.
The most commonly seen slogans are variations on "No to US beef!" But people
seem equally, if not more, upset about President Lee Myung-bak. "The President
Lee said he would serve people. I think he's not doing it. So, I am
protesting," said tiger-suited Lee.
Mahbub Alam from Bangladesh said of the street protests: "I get the feeling
that the issue is not just about the beef. The American beef is rather a symbol
for people to snub President Lee, who they feel is snubbing them."
Besides the lack of violence, what is surprising - even to South Koreans - is
that there is no organizer for the already weeks-long demonstration. People
took to the streets and formed ad hoc protest groups, usually around 6pm or 7pm
each day. This has been bewildering to South Korean civil society, labor unions
and opposition politicians - the usual players in such public protests.
Tuesday's rally was the first officially organized protest and had the biggest
turnout - police estimate 105,000 demonstrators, while the organizers said the
number was closer to 500,000.
Still, one might think it was some kind of mass picnic, until you spot the riot
police standing stiff, waiting for a crackdown order. Some people are holding
impromptu concerts complete with guitars and violins, singing and dancing. In
some cases, entire families have arrived to literally "camp out" in the middle
of traffic. Of course they brought tents with them.
Other "protesters" have brought hot coffee to serve anyone who needs it. And
high school students have given out roses to riot police, a move that
definitely brings down the tension level. Some are distributing water bottles
to the aggressive "frontliners" who usually shout more and work up a justified
thirst. There are even volunteer medics walking around, shouting "Does anybody
Young couples use the protest for a romantic outing. They march with hands held
tight, and the other hand holding a candle. Local TV footage has shown a man
celebrating his girlfriend's birthday with a protest-candle cake. Other
"demonstrators" have brought an outdoor movie projector and are showing the US
With the party atmosphere in full swing, the street vendors are enjoying a
heyday of extra money and unusual business hours. It's 2am, and here they are
selling kimbob (Korean sushi) or bundaegi (roasted silkworm
larvae) right in the middle of roads that have been declared "no-traffic zones"
by protesters who're occupying them.
This is South Korea's street protests 2.0. Or, perhaps, South Korea's
"postmodern" demonstrations. With some Koreans mistrustful of mainstream media
reports on the demonstration, they've taken matters into their own hands by
broadcasting and reporting themselves. Using high-speed wireless Internet, some
"embedded" citizens are using their own laptops and camcorders to broadcast
real-time events. There are "citizen reporters" conducting interviews and
taking pictures and posting them on their personal blogs and Internet forums.
In fact, these news hounds have been so effective that some established
newspapers have begun quoting them.
With no leaders leading, the protest might be considered "ineffective". People
are protesting individually, shouting different slogans, marching in different
directions; different people with different agendas. Some shout "2MB", the
lowest speed unit of computer processing and also the initials of President
Lee, sarcastically pointing out how slow Lee is in understanding the people's
Lee, who won the presidency in December with a record 5-million vote margin
over runner-up Chung Dong-young, saw his popularity plunge below 20% by the
time he marked his 100th day in office last week - another record in South
Korea's recent decades. In fact, Lee has recently become so controversial a
figure that the Korean edition of Wikipedia, the online participatory
encyclopedia, decided to freeze any further revision on "Lee Myung-bak" for the
next four months, fearing malicious attempts to distort the "facts" on him that
have yet to be settled.
In this unusual protest, there are some unusual chants as well. "Turn away from
your evil sin and turn to God," shouts a 40ish woman waving a Bible. "Take
President Lee to God. I pray that God takes Lee out of the planet quickly," a
man shouts back. Not far away, Roh Eun-jung, 28, a web designer chants:
"Non-violence! Keep non-violence!"
Meanwhile, those who have earned an appetite after hours of street protesting
yell, "We want food!" This mantra received echoes and giggles from sympathetic
comrades throughout the crowd.
For the police, this unorganized rabble - ranging from a uniformed high-school
student to a 57-year-old housewife, who said she came out "to change the world"
- is easier to manage than a well-organized and militant group of protesters
led by a strident leader. This self-appointed mob, however, does tend to stick
around longer. And why not? It's 4am now in Seoul's main Gwanghwamun area and
there are still quite a number of candle-holders milling about.
A police officer, asked when all this was likely to end, said: "I have no idea
because this is an organization where there is no organizer." The conversation
was then interrupted by a man holding out a cup of silkworm larvae to the
officer. "Please, eat and keep up the good work!" the man says. A lady next him
agreed: "We love you, police officer!" Surely, even love is possible in this
wondrous war zone.
But things aren't so lovely all the time. As the protests have stretched into
weeks, the familiar protest tools such as steel pipes and rocks have also
surfaced, spelling an omen for possible violence and bloodshed.
For example, Friday will mark the sixth anniversary of the death of two Korean
middle school girls who were run over by a US armored vehicle - a very
emotional issue for many South Koreans. What is also worrisome is that the
month of June in South Korea is traditionally a season for annual labor
Already some labor groups have designated June 16 as a walk-out day. Then comes
June 25, the Korean War Memorial Day. It's likely that the rightist groups will
take to the streets at that time to protest against the leftist groups, who
they believe are fooled by Pyongyang and sympathetic towards North Korea.
There will be many more pickets, chants, roses, candles, silkworm larvae and
DVDs - it won't be a quiet month.
Some people call the recent lack of violence in protests as "democratic
progress". They also see it as a social experiment in South Korea's deepening
democratic experience. Hardline "old school" protesters, however, view it as "a
picnic that doesn't change the nation". They argue that a street demonstration
should be more forceful, with a clear set of actions designed to get
concessions from the government. They believe that after the decades of
military rule ended, a noisy protest is still the best way to make one's voice
Amid this raucous imbroglio, it was a foreigner who saw the silver lining. "I
think it will eventually help the country's democratic progress. People will
find a point of convergence where they can begin a constructive dialogue," said
Mahbub Alam from Bangladesh. "They just need some time to sort things out."
Sunny Lee, a native of Seoul, worked for the United Nations and as a
journalist and writer. Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing
Foreign Studies University.