In a surreal battle, thousands of riot police raided Chogye Temple yesterday morning, retaking an administrative building from dissident monks and ending a 40-day standoff.
At the headquarters of South Korea's largest Buddhist order, the monks had been protesting attempts by the temple leader to retain power. After weeks of sporadic infighting, police intervened decisively. Water cannons and the pop of tear-gas canisters broke the morning calm as monks fought back.
Two monks on a ledge doused themselves with gasoline while screaming at riot police to stand back. When it was all over, 76 were arrested, and 18 were hurt.
The violent confrontation is a throwback to the pitched street battles of yesteryear that filled Western newscasts with images of firebomb-hurling students.
But the monks are an anomaly. Korea's protests are mostly dominated by pet causes and special interests these days, from laid-off workers to those opposed to importing genetically altered soybeans.
At another recent gathering, near Korea's version of Washington's Lafayette Park, movie stars and directors confronted intimidating riot police who peered at them from behind shields and face masks. It's a common scene played out by actors who know their roles, as it were.
The protesters were demanding the government keep screen quotas to protect Korean films from Hollywood imports. With slicked-back hair, turtlenecks, and sunglasses, they looked gloomy but hip, and didn't clash with police.
The storm troopers nudged each other, craning for a better view of the actresses.
How tactics have evolved
Call it the New Korean Protest. For decades, Koreans fought a dictatorship in a broad-based protest movement, which culminated in 1987 when the government adopted a democratic Constitution.
And until 1996, leftist students regularly held violent demonstrations against South Korea's staunchly anti-Communist government. Ten days of mayhem wrecked Yonsei University campus here, killing at least one policeman. (But even then, Korean demonstrations did not approach the genuine chaos seen in Indonesia this year.)
Today, demonstrations are so common that activists have established a regular tent city in front of Myongdong Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church in downtown Seoul that was the traditional haven of pro-democracy activists in the 1980s.
Last week, hundreds of Daewoo Electronics workers filled the grounds, protesting a "takeover" by Samsung that could cost jobs. Economic-crisis protests are particularly common these days, as bureaucrats and businessmen begin a restructuring that is being urged by the government.
But with three to four protests a week, the church's congregation is feeling a little oppressed themselves. "The rallyers aren't just rallying anymore. They're living here," says Friar Kim Samuel Ji Young. It [looks] like a homeless shelter instead of a rally."
"In the 1980s they [fasted] and they had really strong issues," adds Mr. Kim. "But today it's very unorganized."
Fed up with failed attempts to compromise, members of the congregation last month demolished all but one of the tents. Enraged at being expelled, squatters rebuilt their tents the next day. In what was possibly Korea's most surreal demonstration scene, they protested against the cathedral, shouting "Congregation Repent!"
Then again, there is the Buddhist monk incident.
Chogye Temple, Korea's other traditional haven, is a mess after yesterday's raid. Earlier this month, monks lobbed Molotov cocktails and furniture at each other during political infighting.
Song Wol Ju had sought a third four-year term as chief of Korea's largest Buddhist order. But dissident monks seized a five-story administrative building, and successfully fought off a violent attempt by other monks to retake it. They reinforced their position with heaps of lumber garnished with coils of barbed wire.
It may seem odd for monks to fight, but after independence from Japan was gained in 1948, South Korean Buddhists recruited anyone they could find to swell the monks' ranks, including the unemployed and former criminals. Some of this legacy persists.
As a rule, riot police stay out of the havens to not upset religious sensibilities. So nobody intervened as the monks fought with clubs and burned down part of their own facility earlier, sending 40 to the hospital. But yesterday police carried out a court order to remove the monks.
A top riot police director, Kim Bu Ook, proudly says protests are less violent these days. Generally, citizens are respecting the law, and the police are more restrained, he says.
Doing what works
But riot police are regularly dispatched around Seoul, even to weekly protests at the Japanese Embassy where former sex slaves of Japan's imperial Army demand compensation and apologies for World War II atrocities.
Asked why such a show of force is needed, Kim explains to a foreign reporter, "It's a cultural difference. American citizens have an attitude to follow the law."
He says Koreans, on the other hand, are unruly, less obedient, and respond best to a show of force. "We sent riot police to kill their spirits," he says.
But some riot policeman, like Ji Yong Chan, who gives directions to foreign tourists as he guards Chogye Temple, are less than enthusiastic about that task.
"Some of the younger guys want to [be in a riot], but not me. Why would I want to fight against workers who could be my father, and university students who are like my friends?" he says.
Most riot police are conscripted students who opted out of other military services. Often they have joined the police and found they were confronting their friends. When their duty was over, some returned to fighting old riot-police colleagues.