Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Family That Protests Together

(Photo from OhMyNews.)

The 28th candlelight vigil took place last night; organizers plan a 72-hour vigil starting tonight, to last through Saturday. Next Tuesday, June 10, will be the 21st anniversary of the 1987 uprising that ended the dictatorship in Korea, and a huge rally is planned to commemorate that. Seoul National University students voted overwhelmingly to join the vigils, along with other college students around the country.

Still, for now, things have apparently calmed down, and the vigils have gone back to their nonviolent status quo ante. According to the Korea Herald (“College Students Gather For Beef Protests”),

Following escalating criticism about "high-handed" crackdowns on protesters, police have been acting in a cautious manner since Tuesday night, refusing to aggressively respond to the demonstrations. They previously used water cannons, fire extinguishers and metal shields to disperse increasingly violent demonstrators.

As far as I can tell, the demonstrators only became “increasingly violent” after the police brought out clubs and water cannons to disperse the crowds. Probably, like many Americans, the Herald writer considers any demonstration “violent” by default.

President Lee’s government is trying to save the situation by proposing that US meat suppliers voluntarily refrain from exporting “older” American beef, and Korean importers would refrain from importing it. “On Monday, several U.S. beef producers said they would label the age of meat exported to Korea to help Korean customers decide whether to buy the American beef or not.” This indicates how pressed US producers feel; corporations hate labeling products; they managed to block labeling of genetically modified foods in the US, for instance. The alternative would be renegotiation of the import terms, “which policymakers regard as almost impossible” (“Lee’s beef option faces uphill battle”). But there would be no formal, legal oversight to make sure the voluntary measures were carried through, and Korean opponents are not likely to accept this strategy.

Opposition parties called it a "mean trick" to patch things up temporarily. Experts are skeptical of its efficacy in curbing trade. There are no signs of letup in street protests.

Opposition parties yesterday intensified pressure for the ruling Grand National Party to join their initiative to completely ban imports of beef from U.S. cattle aged more than 30 months at the time of slaughter.

The GNP on Tuesday accepted the main opposition United Democratic Party's proposal to adopt a parliamentary resolution to force the government to renegotiate the import terms.

Yesterday, it also proposed a parliamentary delegation visit the United States to deliver Koreans' safety concerns and discuss solutions with U.S. officials, politicians and businesses.

But the UDP said it will not accept the governing party's call for convening the National Assembly unless it agrees to sign up with the beef embargo bill.

Ambassador Vershbow’s snide recommendation that Koreans “learn the science and the facts about American beef” didn’t win the US any friends either.

I’m going to try to learn more about the organization of the vigils. The Korean TV news coverage shows individual protesters as talking heads; I haven’t seen any “leaders,” which I consider a positive thing – in the US the media aren’t happy unless they’ve got One Man to talk to. The vigils began more or less spontaneously, and I’ve heard that originally the high school students who started them had other issues on their minds, but as they grew there had to be coordination, to set up stages for the speakers and musicians. I’ve also seen clips of people stacking up huge piles of bottled water and other supplies for the crowds, so someone is obviously doing the scutwork. One of my friends told me there’s a committee that does this work, so I’ll be talking to more people about it when I can, and report here. I wish I spoke more Korean! The mere fact of people taking an unexpected protest and turning it into a month of huge daily rallies boggles my mind. Could such a thing happen in the US?