Sunday 25 August 2019

Anti-government protesters clash with police in Seoul

South Korean riot police spray water cannons at protesters in Seoul (AP)
South Korean riot police spray water cannons at protesters in Seoul (AP)
The marches in Seoul were organised by an umbrella labour union and civic groups

Police have fired tear gas and water cannons as they clashed with anti-government demonstrators marching through Seoul in what was believed to be the largest protest in South Korea's capital in more than seven years.

About 70,000 protesters marched from various locations in Seoul to an area near City Hall, according to police. The demonstration stretched into the evening, and police detained at least a dozen people.

The marches, organised by labour, civic and farmers' groups, brought together protesters with a diverse set of grievances against the government of conservative president Park Geun-hye, including her business-friendly labour policies and a decision to require middle and high schools to use only state-issued history textbooks starting in 2017.

Demonstrators, many of them masked, carried banners and chanted "Park Geun-hye, step down" and "No to layoffs" as they occupied a major city centre street. Some of them clashed with police, who created tight perimeters with buses to block them.

Protesters tried to move some of the buses by pulling ropes tied to the vehicles, and police, wearing helmets and body armour, responded by firing tear gas and water cannons.

Officers also fired water cannons from above a portable wall nearby to disperse marchers who were trying to advance. Some protesters fought back by hitting police officers camped on the top of the buses with poles. Others smashed the windows of the buses with sticks or spray-painted anti-government slogans on them.

Police detained at least 12 people for violent behaviour, according to an official at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. Police said it was likely some people had been injured in the clashes, but could not immediately confirm the number.

Earlier in the day, members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, an umbrella labour union, clashed with police who unsuccessfully tried to detain KCTU president Han Sang-goon during a news conference. A Seoul court had issued an arrest warrant for Han over a failed court appearance, after he was indicted for his involvement in organising a May protest that turned violent.

"If lawmakers try to pass the (government's) bill that will make labour conditions worse, we will respond with a general strike and that will probably be in early December," said Han, moments before police moved in and forced him to flee inside a building as his colleagues blocked the officers.

Police said the crowd was probably the largest at a demonstration in Seoul since May 2008, when about 100,000 people poured on to the streets to protest the government's decision to resume US beef imports amid lingering mad cow fears.

Unions have denounced government attempts to change labour laws to allow larger freedom for companies in laying off workers, which policy-makers say would be critical in improving a bleak job market for young people.

Critics say the state-issued history textbooks, which have not been written yet, would be politically driven and might attempt to whitewash the brutal dictatorships that preceded South Korea's bloody transition towards democracy in the 1980s.

Ms Park is the daughter of assassinated military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea in the 1960s and 70s, and whose legacy as a successful economic strategist is marred by a record of severe oppression.

In May, South Korean police detained more than 40 people when protests over the government's labour policies and the handling of a year-old ferry disaster spiralled into violence, leaving several demonstrators and police injured.

A 69-year-old farmer was taken to hospital after he fell and hit the back of his head as police doused him with water cannons near City Hall, according to the Korea Peasants League activist group.

Television footage showed Baek Nam-gi lying motionless as other demonstrators struggled to drag him away and police continued to fire water cannons at them from police buses.

Doctors told Mr Baek's family that his condition was too fragile to attempt emergency surgery, said Cho Byung-ok, secretary general of the Korea Peasants League.

PA Media

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