South Korea's consecutive rallies against President Park

By Daniele Pestilli on December 12, 2015
South Korea's President, Park Geun-hye (CC)

On December 5th, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Seoul calling for President Park Geun-hye's resignation over recent pro-labor laws she has pushed forth, as well as for planning to whitewash history textbooks by publishing government-issued texts.

According to the BBC, an estimated 14,000 people attended this rally and 18,000 police were deployed to the capital. Despite the large number, this is far fewer than the 60,000 people who participated in the November 14th demonstration, where attendees marched towards the Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae) as police hampered their journey with tear gas and water cannons.

During the November 14th protest, Ms. Park called for a legislation that would make it illegal for protesters to cover their faces so that they may be easier to identify. In defiance of this absurdity, protesters last week arrived as if dressed for Halloween: masks ranged from that of V for Vendetta, to the Incredible Hulk, Transformers and many other popular characters.

Ms. Park claims the labor laws will create new jobs for young Koreans while stimulating the sluggish economy. It will also help compete with China's low-cost industry, the government claims. Korea's overall unemployment rate stood at 3.4% in October, whereas its youth unemployment for people aged 15 to 29 was 7.4% in the same month. In a public speech at the Blue House, Ms. Park said, “Labor reform is (all about) creating new jobs. Without overhauling the sector, we cannot save young Koreans from despair and resolve the pain of irregular workers.”

However, the unionized workers who partook of the rally argue that the labor reforms pushed by Ms. Park would merely benefit the country’s powerful family-controlled conglomerates by making it easier to fire long-time employees and hire new ones for a fraction of the cost.

South Korea is a country where the large conglomerates, or chaebol, are more than just big companies. They are behemoths. When they speak or are dissatisfied, the government listens. The most prominent chaebol – Samsung – is well-known abroad for its cellphones and TVs, but domestically, the company's presence is pervasive and Samsung Group comprises around 80 entities. Korean apartment buildings, bridges, cars, buses, ships, refrigerators, microwaves, televisions, cameras, microchips, cosmetics, as well as medical services, telecommunications, financial institutions, insurance companies, petrochemical companies and more are all run by this single conglomerate. It is no surprise then, that any protest that stands in the way of a policy that may benefit a chaebol would be suppressed heavy handedly, as have been the recent demonstrations against President Park's government.

The second issue of controversy, which has involved many student as well as intellectual protesters, is that of the state-authored history textbooks.

A plethora of sensitive topics are to be revised including who bears most responsibility for the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War, as well as to what extent Korea collaborated with Japan during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule on the peninsula.

Many argue that the revisions will also whitewash the legacy of Park Geun-hye’s father, former President Park Chung-hee. Mr. Park seized power in Korea after a military coup in 1961 and governed the country as a military dictator until his assassination in 1979. He was a determined nationalist, and did everything in his power to make South Korea a model for commercial success including silencing the press, muzzling dissenters, imprisoning and torturing his own people. This same modus operandi earned him a high reputation among the country's conservative elite who credit him with spearheading South Korea’s economic growth and paving the way for the its current prosperity.

According to the Korea Herald, whereas critics denounce Ms. Park’s plan as an attempt to beautify her father's bloody dictatorial reign, conservatives argue that current history textbooks are too biased toward left-wing ideology. Ironically, it is also the conservatives – including Ms. Park's own Saenuri Party – who have accused Japan of downplaying its colonial legacy in East Asia in its history textbooks.

It seems that indeed, the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree. As The Guardian articulates, Moon Jae-In, chief of the main opposition, New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) said, “This is no less than outright dictatorship. No free democracy in the world has state-issued history textbooks.”

The textbooks, which will be given to middle and high school students, are to be issued by the government in 2017.

President Park, whose first term in office started February 2013 and is currently serving her third year, has recently been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which expressed concern over the “severe restrictions” placed on the right to peaceful assembly, the Korea Herald reports.

South Korea is due to hold new elections in April 2016.