Friday, February 11, 2011

Middle East Uprisings Alarm Korean Leadership

Barricades erected around Seoul City Hall
The growing unrest in the Middle East, which began in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt, are reportedly causing increasing unease in the Korean leadership, with some fearing that protests may spread soon spread to Seoul.

The recent uprisings across the Arab world have been widely seen as a reaction to legal and political issues, including police brutality, state of emergency laws, lack of fair elections and free speech, corruption, as well as economic issues including food price inflation and low minimum wages – all of which are also endemic problems in South Korea.

Recently, disquiet over the systematic - rather than occasional - torture of criminal suspects at the notorious Yangcheon Police Station in Seoul led to the jailing of five officers, although it was seen as a token gesture to placate public anger. Minimal sentences were passed by the court - which stated that the police had understandably only been motivated by "an excessive zeal for good performance".

Pressure has been mounting since Amnesty International issued a condemning indictment of South Korea last year, stating that "Compared to three years ago, the freedoms not only of assembly and expression, but in civil society as a whole have been greatly curtailed." The criticism followed moves to ban nighttime outdoor assemblies and other anti-government protests, alongside increasing crackdowns on the Internet activities of citizens.

During the 2010 elections, opposition parties, religious and civic groups were banned from discussing 'hot political issues' during elections as this was judged as potentially destabilizing and therefore 'not in the public interest'. The National Election Commission then went on to rule that most government policies were potentially 'hot issues', preventing their discussion during the election. With little left to argue against, opposition parties were reduced to mainly criticizing the President's hairstyle, in a move that they later conceded largely failed to resonate with voters.

An artist who encouraged his Twitter followers to vote during the election was also censured by the Commission along with citizens who posted political messages on their homepages and other websites.

It is widely accepted that the purpose of Korean politics, with its ever-changing parties, shifting factions and brawls in the parliament, is not to exercise power but rather to detract attention away from those who actually hold it in the chaebol cabal. However, citizens here, emboldened by stories of free speech and protests overseas, have increasingly tried to fight for the same rights in Korea.

In an attempt to prevent the Middle East revolutions spreading to Seoul, the ruling GNP - the Grand National Party - began three days of discussions this week on whether to revise the constitution to bring changes to the presidential system. The GNP say the move will restrict some of the President's powers, but citizens are angry because the plan also removes the single-term limit on the President, which will allow Lee Myung-bak to stay in power when his term of office ends. It also seeks to redraw political districts in a way it has been suggested will favor the government.

However, attempts to start a mass protest movement have so far been successfully repressed by government Internet censors, and the pro-Government media has avoided covering recent anti-Government protests, with only the little read left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper speaking out against the censorship, and The Dokdo Times, which due to its unique geographical position falls outside the scope of Seoul's tough media restrictions.

Desperate to prevent anti-government forces gathering in Seoul Plaza, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has banned smokers from the public space located directly in front of Seoul City Hall, ensuring a legal basis for the detention of many opposition figures who attempt to rally supporters there. But as a precaution, the army erected painted barricades around the building yesterday, which the government claimed had been planned for several months as part of Seoul's 'Pink Barricade Festival', announced earlier in the week.

But it is the return of external opposition figures which the government is said to really fear. Privately, some ministers were said to be alarmed by the recent return of the former IAEA Director General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei to Egypt to lead opposition protests, fearing the move may inspire the current U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon – a former foreign minister in Korea's last liberal government - to return to his homeland to lead the opposition to the government's repression.

It is thought the Government is split on what to do if protests continue to build or if Ban Ki-moon returns to Korea. Privately Ministers conceded that it would be difficult to put tanks onto the streets due to the high price of gas and Seoul's notoriously heavy traffic jams.

Ban Ki-moon could not be reached for comment.

Related Links
GNP begins talks on constitutional change
S. Korea receives unfavorable human rights assessment
Campaign gag on 'hot' issues bad: opposition
Online censorship to be bolstered
5 police officers get jail for torture
Painter to be censured for giving artworks to voters
Broadcasters and newspapers under thumb of administration
Controversy mounts over ban on Internet election messages
Smokers in Seoul Plaza to be fined

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