Thousands rally in Seoul to protest against govt

Tens of thousands of people gathered in central Seoul yesterday to protest against the government's planned labour reforms, state history textbook policy and the unresolved Sewol ferry issue, in the biggest mass rally since the 2008 anti-beef protests.

At least 10 protesters, including three high school students, were arrested for obstruction of justice, police said.

The crowd of an estimated 64,000 people started gathering at three locations before noon and were supposed to converge at Gwanghwamun Square before marching to the nearby presidential Blue House, but were blocked by police barricades along the major roads leading to the destination.

More than 20,000 anti-riot police officers were mobilised to control the crowd after the government last Friday vowed harsh measures against illegal activities such as inciting violence.

The police used water cannon to disperse the crowd and local media reported there were some violent clashes that led to at least two protesters being injured and sent to hospital by ambulance.

More than 50 activist groups, mainly labour unions and farming associations, as well as educators, students and members of the public, participated in the so-called People's General Uprising rally.

This is the first time the interest groups have gathered in unison, although they have each held separate protests in the past.

The Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, for one, said the rally aimed to condemn the government's planned labour reforms, which they feel are ineffective in creating jobs for the youth.

The farmers, on the other hand, were there to protest against the opening of protected markets for certain agricultural goods.

Another major group comprised people who opposed the govern- ment's plan to issue a state- published history textbook for schools, which the Education Ministry said was aimed at eliminating inconsistencies in various interpretations of history.

Restaurant owner Oh Yim Ki, 54, travelled five hours by bus from his home in Pohang city, in North Gyeongsang province, together with 49 friends to participate in the rally.

"We want the government out," he told The Sunday Times. "All we want is to be happy, but we are having such a difficult life now because the government has gone down the wrong path."

He criticised the Park Geun Hye administration's failure to boost the economy and its attempts to "beautify history" by issuing a state-written history textbook.

He added that the Sewol ferry issue - referring to the sinking of a ferry in April last year that killed 304 passengers and crew - remains unresolved, with the sunken ship yet to be lifted.

A memorial for the mainly student victims still stands at Gwanghwamun Square, between the two landmark statues of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Soon Shin, two much-loved historical figures.

An altar was set up for people to pay their respects, and photos of the victims - smiling in happier times - were on display.

Hundreds of people also joined a candlelight vigil for the Sewol ferry victims, moving towards the police barricade on one side of Sejong-daero to rally for the government to raise the ferry.

A prominent yellow banner held up by protesters read "There are still people inside Sewol", referring to the nine victims yet to be found.

The subway station nearby was closed after the police tried to stop a group of protesters from advancing.

Though rowdy, the rally was largely peaceful and one group started dispersing by around 9pm (8pm Singapore time).

Protests are a common sight in South Korea, but a rally crowd of this size has not been seen since the 2008 protest against beef imports from the United States, which drew more than 50,000 people.

This article was first published on Nov 15, 2015.
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