Peaceful follow-up to November’s Protests in Seoul
Images by Patrick Murray, Words by Sam McNeil Paterson
The follow-up protest in Seoul to November’s anti government demonstrations concluded without incident on Saturday, in sharp contrast to the previous protest on 11/14, which was one of the largest in recent years and saw police use pepper spray and water cannons to disperse protesters, reportedly injuring several and hospitalizing one.
There were no reports of violence between police and protesters on Saturday, despite attempts earlier in the week by Seoul police to ban the demonstration, and the promise of a hard-line attitude towards violent protesters, including calls for the use of dye in water cannons to aid in identification and arrest.
The proposed ban was overturned late last week by the Seoul Administrative Court, which ruled that the protests would not present a definitive threat to public safety. The protest’s organisers promised that the demonstration would remain peaceful. Seoul Metropolitan Police officials said last week that more than 14,000 police would be mobilized in downtown Seoul on Saturday, supported by anti-riot buses with barricades and 18 water cannon units.
Large crowds gathered in front of Seoul’s City Hall on Saturday afternoon to address the same range of issues that were the focus of November’s protest, including the Park administration’s intent to appoint a panel that will write and issue mandatory government-approved history textbooks for middle and high-school students; the government’s ongoing response to the Sewol ferry disaster, and new business-friendly labor reform laws tabled by Park’s Saenuri party, which would allow employers greater leeway in firing employees.
Police said that 14,000 people attended the protests, with organisers and other sources putting numbers in the range of 30,000.
The crowd was in good spirits despite near-freezing temperatures, marching from City Hall to Seoul National University Hospital near Hyewha, where thousands of protesters lit candles for Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old farmer who remains in critical condition after being knocked down by water cannon during the demonstrations of November 14.
A large contingent of the protesters wore masks, in response to comments made by President Park last week that compared the November protesters to the Islamic State. “Given that the extremists of the Islamic State group hide their faces, we should ban demonstrators from wearing masks in the future,” Park is reported to have told a Cabinet meeting, prompting scornful coverage from both domestic and foreign media.
Masks ranged from masquerade-style to Iron Man, Anonymous, Hello Kitty, and two Daft Punk helmets.
Both police officials and protest organizers expressed satisfaction that the protests had remained peaceful. A further demonstration is planned later this month.