On 5 December 2015, 40,000 people demonstrated against President Park Geun-hye of South Korea in front of Seoul’s City Hall. In November 130,000 had protested, in response to a call by 118 unions affiliated to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), against labour market reforms, the government’s decision to prescribe the content of school history textbooks, and the free trade agreement with China. The police used water canons and 30 protesters were injured, one seriously.
Kim Ju-hyun, an associate professor at the University of Seoul who had been on City Hall Square in November, asked: “How can the president talk about violent and illegal demonstrations when so many people were protesting peacefully? How can she compare these masked protesters to members of ISIS, a terrorist organisation?”
Some protesters wore masks in the shape of a butterfly or the face of a cat, a tiger or the president, since the police use video or surveillance cameras to identify protesters, who may then be summoned.
The day of the December protest, Seoul’s central district court issued arrest warrants against eight people for “illegal” demonstration.
A few days earlier, around 700 police had surrounded and searched the headquarters of the KCTU for six hours, taking away files and PCs. The KCTU’s head, Han Sang-gyun, accused of encouraging violence, hid in a Buddhist temple for three weeks before turning himself in.
“I am fighting to stop laws designed to make it easier to dismiss employees. That makes me public enemy number one in the government’s eyes,” he said when arrested.
On 13 December the central district court decided that he should be placed in “provisional detention” on suspicion of “criminal acts”. Park, who has indulged infractions by Korea’s chaebols (business conglomerates), notorious for tax fraud, has no hesitation in repressing opponents.
One motive for protest is proposed legislation on the labour market and healthcare. Park and the conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party want to increase flexibility and the number of precarious jobs, claiming this will help to secure work for the young.
At present, all employees on fixed contracts must be hired permanently if they remain in the same job more than two years; the new law would raise this to four years. These informal workers do not earn as much as their colleagues and do not have the same social rights. Their numbers rose by 4.9 per cent between 2011 and 2015. The new law would also make it easier to hire young people part-time.
Park is pleased with her work to promote “inclusive growth,” benefiting Koreans: “We have pursued reform in four main areas: the public sector, the labour market, financial sector soundness and education.” She says nothing of the results of her policies and those of her predecessor (also a conservative) — growth fell from 6.2 per cent in 2010, to 2.7 per cent in 2014. Korea’s young, though highly-educated, are finding it ever more difficult to get a job.
The Saenuri Party’s chairman, Kim Moo-sung, says it’s the unions’ fault: “Without the KCTU, the country would be much wealthier. Per capita GDP would be over US$30,000,” he claimed in November. According to the International Monetary Fund, Korea’s per capita GDP is currently US$27,315.
The government also wants to privatise some hospital services for profit. It hopes to promote medical tourism, and claims this will create 11,000 jobs. Koreans will have to pay more, or wait longer, to be treated.
The November demonstration included many farmers and fishermen angered by the free trade agreement with China, ratified by the national assembly soon after. They are worried the agreement will lead to a massive influx of cheap Chinese products. The government has recognised their fears as well founded by approving a compensation package worth 1billion Korean won (US$850,000) over 10 years, probably insufficient to cover their losses.
For weeks, there have been protests against Park’s decision to impose a single school history textbook, its content to be decided by a commission that she will appoint personally. It’s a matter, she says, “of correcting the distorted and left-leaning versions that seek to glorify North Korea by discrediting the South’s capitalist achievements.”
The battle over history textbooks in Korea has always been lively. After the Japanese occupation, private publishing houses were in charge of history books, which the government approved after inspection. But from 1974, the dictator Park Chung-hee (1962-79), the current president’s father, imposed a state monopoly.
In 1972 he concocted the Yushin constitution, which ended limits on the number of terms a president could serve and concentrated power in his hands. This “1972 Restoration” made it possible to establish state control of school textbooks, leading to glorification of the government and serious distortions of history. After the dictatorship ended, in the 1980s, a pluralist system was restored. Park wants to stifle this.
In 2008 her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, pressed for the creation of an alternative textbook of South Korean modern history, with a less negative view of the Japanese occupation, making it possible to “modernise” Korea. It praised the chaebols, to which Korea owed its industrialisation, and Park Chung-hee.
The same approach can be seen in a textbook published by Kyohaksa, approved by Park Geun-hye. Historians are concerned at the imposition of a single book. But the president told a council of state meeting: “If [children] do not learn correct history, their minds will become abnormal.”
In her three years, Park has made 20 official visits to other countries. The conservative media (almost all newspapers and television stations) boast about Park’s taste: She went “beautifully dressed [...] to promote South Korean fashion at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.”
They are less lyrical about protesters: “The strike organisers claim they are protesting peacefully; the authorities should not be deceived by this kind of camouflage.” Legislation to ban the wearing of masks at rallies has already been presented to the national assembly, and the charges against the head of the KCTU remain, something not seen since the end of the dictatorship.
This article was first published by Le Monde diplomatique and translated by Charles Goulden. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Agence Global.