Union leader warns of violence during G20 protests in South Korea

As demonstration organizers today revealed plans for their G20 protests next week in South Korea, an unprecedented security force of 50,000 police geared up.

Lee Jin-man/AP Photo
Kim Young- hoon, chairman of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, answers reporters' questions during a news conference about the their mass rallies plan to mark the upcoming G20 summit in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 5. South Korean labor and civic groups declared Friday that they will launch protests from this weekend in opposition to the goals and agendas of the G20 summit opening in Seoul next week.

The chief of South Korea’s largest trade union professes a belief in nonviolence – but he offers no guarantees if police try to stop protests during next week's G20 summit of world leaders here.

“Excessive [police] force will result in violence that nobody wants,” said Kim Young-hoon, president of the powerful Korean Confederation of Trade Unons, whose 600,000 members dominate motor vehicle plants, shipyards, and the government-owned national rail system.

Mr. Kim and other protest organizers today revealed details for their week-long campaign, while police patrols rehearsed elaborate plans to protect world leaders and more than 100 business tycoons from potentially violent protesters. Thousands are expected to converge Sunday in front of Seoul City Hall and challenge the police barriers that will form a four-mile-wide circle around the cavernous Convention and Exhibition Center where G20 leaders, including US President Barack Obama, will meet Nov. 11-12.

The sense of urgency when it comes to security is all the more pronounced in light of demonstrators' past successes in rampaging through central Seoul and other major cities here. In 2008, upwards of 100,000 people gathered nightly to denounce the import of American beef that they claimed carried the risk of “mad cow” disease.

This time, the police, many of them wearing newly issued uniforms with "G20" arm patches, believe they are capable of confining the protests to clearly marked areas in front of Seoul City Hall and Seoul station, scenes of historic and often unruly antigovernment protests. Some 50,000 police will be deployed next week, more than twice as many as during June's G20 summit in Toronto.

“Repression of freedom and rights is what induces workers’ violence,” Mr. Kim said during Friday's news conference in Seoul. “We call on the government to deal with the demonstrations in a rational way.”

The protesters' campaign could reach a climax Thursday afternoon and evening when thousands gather in front of Seoul Station and then try to march several miles to the National Museum, where the leaders are to attend a reception and dinner. The confrontation may turn violent as several thousand policemen, backed by trucks with water cannons, block them at barricades.

The demonstrators' slogans convey much the same message as that of the protests at the G20 summit in Toronto, where violent demonstrators burned cars and broke businesses' windows. “We strongly condemn the G20 summit,” the organizers shouted in Korean today during the news conference, holding up signs reading, in Korean, “Stop repression of workers under the pretext of G20” and “Put people first."

Their litany of complaints included the G20's alleged failure to adopt "effective financial regulations" or tackle "poverty and development issues." Previous G20 summits, said their statement, "have failed to solve the global socio-economic crises."

A statement issued by the protest committee accused the government of President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who was elected in December 2007, of using the summit “as an excuse to repress democracy, human rights, and fundamental labor rights.”

As evidence of repression, the organizers cited the arrest of a man who had drawn the image of a rat on a poster for the summit. That image struck a sensitive nerve, as antigovernment cartoons often portray Mr. Lee as a rat. Moreover, the Korean word for rat is “jee,” just like the “G” in G20.

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