Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thoughts on the continuing protests

[Update: I added a few photos and links below]

Here are some of the more interesting articles on the protests these days:

At Global Voices Online, there is a somewhat humourous take on the current situation, as a netizen asks how to break up with a certain man. Less humourous is the story of a middle school teacher who supposedly spoke out in favour of allowing US beef into the country and had his phone number and information spread on the internet, forcing him to cancel his cell phone service.

I'd joked before about how candlemakers might be the real driving force behind these protests, but, as this article tells us, the candlemakers aren't profitting so much, though other businesses are:
A domestic candle makers’ association on Tuesday said that its members cannot meet demand. Rally organizers estimate that around 400,000 candles were used during just the June 6 to 10 period. Local discount retailer Lotte Mart said that its candle sales shot up around 28 percent from May 5 to 16, compared to last year. But all is not a bed of roses for candle makers.

Though sales went through the roof, suppliers complain that because of a small profit margin, they aren’t raking it in. Instead, due to the rise in energy costs, paraffin costs have gone up to 2,000 won ($2) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) compared to 1,000 won last year. Some say they are actually losing money.

“With these candlelight rallies, people think that we [candle makers] are making big bucks. In reality, we’re losing money supplying more candles,” said an owner of a candle manufacturing company in Gyeonggi Province.
Convenience stores near the protest sites are doing well, however, as are others:
On the other hand, Nowcom, a local online services company, should be smiling ear-to-ear. Its Afreeca Internet broadcasting service has featured live broadcasts of the rallies. The company said that it hit a record number of viewers. From May 25 through yesterday, it had 7.8 million viewers. On Tuesday, Afreeca showed 1,357 live broadcasts with 700,000 people tuned in
This Korea Times article took up the topic of the webcasting of the protests further:
A lot of Koreans have been staying up all night these days. They are... watching "matches'' between demonstrators and police during candlelit vigils on various Web sites. Afreeca and other Internet sites have Webcasted the rallies live, using video cameras and laptops and taking advantage of the world's best wireless Internet technology. Among popular Webcasters are Color TV of the New Progressive Party, OhMyNews, Voice of People, Seebox and Radio 21.

Kim Young-il, a 32-year-old office worker, watches the broadcasting through Afreeca, one of the Internet sites, until 2 or 3 a.m. whenever he cannot go and participate in the demonstrations. "When I cannot take part in the rally myself due to fatigue or late work, I watch the Webcasting instead. In that way, I support the demonstrators who chant slogans on the streets and sometimes clash with police,'' Kim said.
Protests as spectator sports? Or webcasting as interactive game?
Some people join in the rallies at night after watching the internet footage. "I was watching Color TV at night between May 31 and June 1 when the most violent clashes occurred and police fired water cannons. Seeing many protesters injured, I thought that I should do something for them and rushed to the demonstration site,'' an Internet user with the ID "kiyeoun obba'' said on a Daum community site.

According to Korean Click, an Internet media research firm, the number of visitors to Afreeca and OhMyNews has more than doubled over the last one month. They had an average of 600,000 visitors per week before, now almost 2 million.
The organizers of these vigils have announced the contours of future protests, saying they will continue until at least June 20:
The People's Association for Measures Against Mad Cow Disease, which has been organizing candlelight vigils against the import of U.S. beef, warned Wednesday it would launch an impeachment campaign against President Lee Myung-bak if the government fails to begin an all-out renegotiation of the beef deal with the U.S. by June 20. In a statement, the coalition of over 1,700 civic groups including the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, urged the government to nullify the existing agreement and negotiate the deal from scratch. “If the government decides to ignore the mandate from the people, who hold the sovereign power in this country, we will not hesitate to launch a campaign to drive President Lee Myung-bak out of office,” the statement read.

The Association added it will continue candlelight vigils until June 20. The protesters are organizing large-scale rallies on Friday, which marks the sixth anniversary of the death of two schoolgirls killed by a U.S. armored car, and also on Saturday, the funeral of the late Lee Byung-ryeol who burned himself to death to protest against the import in Jeonju. They will also hold a big event on Sunday, the eighth anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit. The candles will not be snuffed out for at least this month, as the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is scheduled to lead summer strikes soon.
It's interesting to go back to the beginning of the protests and see how they started. Gord Sellar attended the first two nights of protests, and posted photos of them. This is how the Donga Ilbo characterized the second protest, on Saturday May 3, in an article titled "Brainwashed by the Internet":
Among the protesters at Saturday [May 3]’s candlelight vigil against the resumption of U.S. beef imports, 70 to 80 percent were middle and high school students. The majority of the students were also girls.
Gord, in this excellent post, where he describes the protests as a "the postmodern equivalent of a peasant uprising," comments on this:
[T]he Korean media has, finally, stopped pretending that everyone at these demonstrations are middle schoolers. It was a lie from the start — I know because I was at the first two demonstrations, and saw the vast majority of people were adults with my own two eyes; Lime saw the same the other day, with Catholic clergy and office workers and mommies with babies in tow all together — and the lie has outworn its usefulness. (Foreign commentators on Marmot’s persist in clinging to it, unsurprisingly.)
An example of how newspapers like the Joongang Ilbo tried to belittle the protests and cherry picked the most ridiculous comments made by young participants was translated by Korea Beat:
13-year old middle school student Go, who came to the vigil after finishing an exam at school, said, “on the fan site for Dongbangshingi I saw a message saying let’s gather in Yeouido. I’m here because of Dongbangshingi.”

Many came because of what they read on the internet. 21-year old Myongji University student Kim Seon-ah said, “I received a message that said let’s stop mad cow disease, there is a candlelight vigil. So I came.”
What I don't understand are people (I'm thinking of Marmot's Hole commenters) who claim that one of the reasons for these protests is the very unscrupulous reporting by the Korean media (such as PD Diary). They then go on to show how illogical the protesters are by using examples provided by the... Korean media. Is it just me, or does that seem just as illogical as they say the protesters are?

As I'll look at in the sequel to this post, the choice of locations for these protests is distantly related to anti-Americanism, and to be sure, many of the organizations taking part in organizing the vigils are opposed to the FTA or American policies, and no one is concerned about beef from other countries (or Korean beef), but as noted by Scott Burgeson, who has been attending the protests every night for weeks and talking to the participants (and who has posted some of his observations and experiences here), the tenor on the ground is one of opposition to Lee Myung-bak. As Gord Sellar noted, "beef was the catalyst, beef is a vehicle, and it’s certainly a “folk devil.”" Burgeson noted that "there was a kind of pivot early on where it switched from being anti-US beef to being a broad coalition against 2MB". He also noted on June 7 that "As soon as you try to define this thing it turns into something else." Clicking on any of the comments or posts on this page will display photos he's taken during the last month of protests.

I've seen posts in the English language Korean blogosphere pointing out that vigil organizers were going to commemorated the deaths of Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon, the two middle school girls run over by a US military vehicle on June 13, 2002 (for more background on the incident, this post at ROK Drop is well worth reading, and the Metropolitician offers his analysis of those that used their deaths to create a protest movement against the US military). Some of the commentary I've read recently has been saying, "See? They're going to include these girls' deaths in the anti-beef protests! That means this movement is [overtly] anti-American!" No it doesn't. Candlelight vigils have been held in the same places as the current vigils are taking place every year since the girls died. The inclusion of a memorial for the girls should be of no surprise whatsoever to anyone who has been paying attention to how they've memorialized over the past few years.

Above is a photo of the memorial vigil held in 2003 at City Hall (before Seoul Plaza was built), which is the same place the vigil was held this year. In 2004 and 2005, the girls' deaths were commemorated with vigils at Gwanghwamun. In 2006 there was a problem: June 13, the anniversary of their deaths, was the date of Korea's first World Cup game:

(The "up" isn't necessary... (from here))

The Hankyoreh criticized those celebrating in the streets for forgetting the anniversary of the girls' deaths, though a small memorial was held near Gwanghwamun. In 2007 a vigil was held at Cheonggye Plaza.

I planned on posting this a few days ago, and was going to say, yes, there is a certain kneejerk dislike of America that lies behind these protests, at least for some of the participants, but the true measure of just how overtly anti-American these protests are will be seen if the incorporation of the memorialization of these girls continues and becomes a focal point in the demonstrations. If it turns out to be a one or two day memorial for the girls, then it should be clear that the ghosts of 2002 are not as prominent as some would like to think.

The Korea Herald article "Candlelight vigils mark deaths of schoolgirls" describes the vigil yesterday:
Thousands gathered in central Seoul yesterday to commemorate the deaths in 2002 of two schoolgirls who were crushed by a U.S. military vehicle. The solemn candlelight vigil at Seoul Plaza was dominated by protests against U.S. beef imports and calls for resignation of President Lee Myung-bak. The rally was joined by a coalition of civic groups leading daily rallies against U.S. beef import deal.
Last night's vigil came just three days after the massive candle light march on Tuesday, where up to 700,000 took to the streets, according to the civil alliance, "People's Action for Countermeasures Against Mad Cow Disease." Only hundreds gathered briefly on Wednesday and Thursday due to the rain and fatigue.
The photo above is from this page, which shows both those mourning the girls and those protesting against Lee Myung-bak. This blog also has photos of the vigil.

This says 30,000 took part, but I have to seriously question that number. Some of the protesters (this article says 10,000) at City Hall then marched via Seosomun and Maporo across the Mapo Bridge to Yeouido to join people who have since Wednesday been holding a sit-in in front of KBS (apparently the sit-in was to go all night).

Today the funeral of Lee Byung-ryeol, who burned himself to death during a protest in Jeonju on May 25, was held at City Hall.

If the portrait above seems familiar, it seems designed to look similar to this portrait of Lee Han-yeol, who was fatally injured on June 9, 1987. Here is the same portrait being used at that time:

I have my doubts that Lee Byeong-ryeol's portrait will replace the 'candle girls'.

Perhaps worth noting is that tonight's protest took place at Gwanghwamun and City Hall.

If you look at the photos from the protest tonight, you'll notice that Lee's photo turns up several times, but the most visible signs are anti-Lee Myung-bak (or anti-beef). I didn't see any photos of Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon, or any slogans related to them. I'd say with the amount of Anti-Lee slogans being displayed, as well as the march to Yeouido, and the funeral of Lee Byeong-ryeol, and the anniversary (tomorrow) of the 2000 inter-Korean summit, those who would use the deaths of the girls to turn things in an overtly anti-American direction aren't going to have much luck, as there are too many other anniversaries to commemorate at the moment.

Oh, and a little historical anniversary I forgot from last week: On June 3, 1964, Korea University students marched against the upcoming normalization treaty between Korea and Japan. Many students were arrested, including the student president, who can be seen in the center of the photo during his trial (after which he would apparently serve six months in prison):

It's always interesting to see photos of Lee Myung-bak when he had more hair.


gordsellar said...

Woah, that last snippet... So, do you figure it's a case of, "Well, being cracked down on for protest by authoritarians was good enough for me, so why not for this younger generation..." or what?

Great post, man!

King Baeksu said...

In a word, US beef was used here as a WMD. Ka-boooom!!

Anonymous said...

This is going way too far.

King Baeksu said...

Don't worry, Jim, you'll always have the Chosun Ilbo!