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South Korea: First-hand report -- Day 1 of the anti-G20 Seoul International People's Conference -- Army of cops prevent march

Roddy Quines is a Socialist Alliance of Australia member living in South Korea. This is his first-hand account of the first day of anti-G20 actions on November 7, 2010, in Seoul.

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On the afternoon of November 7 I attended an event called the Seoul International People's Conference. It was organised by trade unions, NGOs and church leaders as an alternative to the G20 conference. The People's Conference is taking place from November 7 to 10. Topics to be discussed include, among others, “Alternatives for the global economy”, “Climate change and civil societies” and “Structural adjustment and labour's strategies for resistance”. November 11 is reserved as a day for direct action with a planned rally and march, and on the morning of November 12 a press conference and strategy meeting are planned. 

There were representatives from many well-known NGOs such as Focus on the Global South and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). The event is hosted at the Jesuit Apostolic Center at the Sogang Catholic Jesuit University. This is a fitting place to hold a progressive conference, as large sections of the Korean Catholic Church have a long history of supporting liberation theology and progressive struggles.

November 7 was the first day of the conference and I got to meet many interesting people from around the world. The People's Conference aims to provide working alternatives to the neoliberal polices that are being undemocratically pushed through by the G20. The People’s Conference’s aim is to put people first and profits last.

As KCTU president Kim Yeong-hun stated during the opening of the conference, "There are 192 member states of the United Nations. The G20 only includes 20 of them. The decision to include these 20 countries had no basis in standards of fairness. In fact, the G20 excludes the majority of the countries of the world, in particular underdeveloped countries and the countries of the Southern Hemisphere, which have suffered the most from the International Monetary Fund's neoliberal policies. The G20 is fundamentally illegitimate and unrepresentative. We need to develop a new, more universal framework for discussion that can represent the interests of underdeveloped countries and include the voices of workers and common people."

There were many guest speakers who unfortunately were not able to attend the conference because the South Korean government turned them away at the border without any explanation. Most notable of these were trade union activists from the Philippines who were planning to attend and tell people about the terrible crimes committed by the Filipino state against organised labour. Others who were denied visas included three activists from Nepal, three from India and one from Pakistan. As Kim Yeong-hun stated at the opening: "It appears that the Lee Myung-bak government believes that it is necessary to shut out all critical voices by preventing union and civil society representatives from entering South Korea in order to assure the success of the G20 Summit."

Riot police attempt to prevent protesters from marching.

After the conference I made my way to City Hall for the workers’ rally against the G20. The KCTU provided a free bus service for all those who attended the conference. The gathering at City Hall was a legal gathering, however the government would not give permission for us to march downtown. Our plan therefore was to confront the police head-on and march anyway, however we could not go ahead with it because the police numbers were too great.

On the bus to City Hall I sat next to a union organiser from Indonesia, and we had an interesting talk about our respective countries. I told him that organising direct industrial action in Australia is starting to get difficult for some sectors because of the industrial laws that were passed by the previous Liberal Party-National Party government and are yet to be fully rolled back by the Labor Party government. I also told him about South Korean president Lee Myung Bak and his aggressive stance towards organised labour.

On the way to City Hall I literally saw an army of police, there were kilometres of police buses parked in the streets and big bands of cops putting on riot gear. The swarms of police were neverending; I swear that there were enough police for a full-scale military battle with the North Korean army! The Indonesian seated next to me told me that he read in the Korean Times newspaper that 70,000 police were to be mobilised for the rally. This morning I read on the ABC website that the actual numbers were 50,000; however on Yahoo news I read that the numbers of police guarding the actual City Hall area was 8000. Despite this, the police presence was simply huge and terrifying; I had never seen so many police in all my life. Mainstream reports and pictures of the incident overlook the huge police presence.

When I arrived at the City Hall the rally had started, there were tens of thousands of unionists in the public square with their union flags and red headbands. There were union delegates screaming on stage and a sea of flags representing the various trade unions across South Korea. It was a nice sight to see so many workers out on the streets and I have always liked the unique uniforms and headbands of Korean trade union members. As I made my way around I got to take a look at all the different groups, there were so many of them and they represented a vast array of causes with everything from protecting the environment to labour issues. I saw quite a few socialist organisations around and I managed to meet up with some of the people from the Trotskyist group "All Together". I told them that I am from Socialist Alliance in Australia and I would like it if our party could develop closer ties with their party.

Another interesting organisation had a petition to free jailed workers, among these included the leaders of the Ssangyong Motors strike. The woman could not speak English well, however with my limited Korean I manage to tell here that I support her cause.

As time passed I began to notice the sheer numbers of people who were being mobilised, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I also began to notice that the police were slowly tightening things up and surrounding us into a small area, it was as if they were ready to choke us at any moment. It was rather frightening because I knew that if things were to get heated there was the possibility of being crushed and injured due to so many people being slowly confined into a small area. As the rally went on I also noticed the police preparing themselves for a full-scale clash with the people. They were getting into formation and shouting chants! The protesters also became louder and began preparing to face-off with the police for the march downtown. As this was happening full riot police began to surround the area in order to block the planned march through downtown. A scuffle broke out with the police and some workers were beaten and pepper sprayed, but unfortunately we were not able to get past the police blockade and the proposed march was kept back.

I think we should have been more militant and pushed forward with our march, as it is completely insane that in a so-called democracy citizens are not allowed to hold a peaceful march through the city. It seems as though the government wanted to contain all protests into a small and easily controllable area.

Overall the first day of protests has proven that working people are willing to mobilise on mass against the undemocratic and unrepresentative body known as the G20. It shows the power of working people to take to the streets and voice our grievances against those who monopolise wealth and power in society.

Anyone interested in reading more on the South Korean anti-G20 movement and the Seoul International People’s Conference can visit the official site at http://en.putpeoplefirst.kr/.

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