South Korea’s dramatic protesters are ready for global spotlight

The Group of 20 summit set to begin here Thursday may have already dodged one major crisis: the golf ball protest.

Residents of a shantytown engaged in a development dispute with government officials planned to hurl hundreds of golf balls over the security fence as leaders of the world’s top economic powers huddled at a mall complex in central Seoul.

But nervous officials struck a deal to avert the public dissent, agreeing to hear the protesters’ grievances after the two-day summit ends.

“Emotions are built up, so we were planning something pretty violent, maybe even throwing Molotov cocktails,” said the vice chairwoman of the community, known as Nine Dragons, who declined to give her name because the issue is so sensitive.


For Seoul officials, it’s one down and 199 protest groups to go.

About 200 organizations have registered to demonstrate during the summit, including labor unions, the physically challenged and former navy commandos who say they plan to set cars and oil tankers on fire nearby.

Few of the organizations have gripes with world leaders, but they aim to grab the international stage to air their grievances with the South Korean government. The former commandos, for instance, want bigger pensions.

Volatile South Korea is often called the Protest Republic. With a population of just under 50 million, it averages 12,000 protests a year, by far the most of any nation in Asia, according to National Police Agency statistics.


Many protests in South Korea feature theatrical tactics such as animal sacrifices, torch burnings, flag-eating, dummy decapitations and feces hurling. Last month, one anti-government protester set himself on fire. Then there was the man who covered himself with bees.

“Korea is Korea; we are who we are,” summit spokeswoman Sohn Jie-ae said. “You cannot put a lid on demonstrations; you just have to live with them. While Americans write letters to their senator to get something done, we demonstrate. We voice our concerns on the street.”

South Korean officials will deploy 60,000 security personnel, including 10,000 military riot troops. They have declared a 1.5-mile protest-free zone around the meeting venue, which will be surrounded by a 7-foot-high security fence.

Analysts warn that any violence would be a costly public relations blunder.

“South Koreans want to highlight themselves as a vibrant Asian democracy, as opposed to a law-and-order state,” said David Midanik, a lawyer who represents activists who sued after their arrest at the June G-20 summit in Toronto. “They certainly don’t want to look like North Korea.”

According to Amnesty International, South Korean officials have a history of violent suppression of protests, often using untrained military conscripts to subdue activists.

“Over time, the crowd control tactics have mellowed,” said Rajiv Narayan, a researcher who will monitor the summit protests. “Tear gas was once freely used, but you don’t see that anymore.”

Experts say protests become emotionally charged because many South Koreans believe they are victims of their government. In one survey, 81% of respondents said there was one law for the rich and another for the poor.


“Above all, there’re simply too many victimized people,” said Kang Joon-mann, a journalism professor at Chonbuk National University and author of the publication “How Did South Korea Become a Protest Republic?”

“Nobody pays attention to a peaceful rally. The media doesn’t report a single sentence on peaceful protests. Only when it turns violent, albeit negative, it gains attention. It’s a vicious cycle,” Kang said.

As a result, demonstrations can turn into absurd theater.

In 2005, one angry protester tried to eat a Japanese flag. The following year, a man stabbed himself in the stomach in a re-creation of the ritualistic Japanese suicide known as hara-kiri to protest Japan’s plans to conduct a marine survey in South Korean-claimed waters. Another man, a beekeeper, slathered himself with honey to attract 187,000 crawling bees.

In Seoul, activists have slaughtered pigs and decapitated dummies representing foreign officials. During 2008 protests against the importation of U.S. beef that many in South Korea believed was tainted, one protester threw cow feces in supermarkets that sold the product.

Last year, 11 protesters and police officers died in a street battle over forced evacuations of businesses to make way for a redevelopment project in Seoul.

Organizers at the Nine Dragons shantytown, home to Third World hovels near some of the priciest housing in South Korea, recently hung effigies believed to represent Seoul officials. But thanks to a last-minute intervention, they won’t be taking to the streets.

“We were ready,” said the community’s vice chairwoman. “We would have used any method possible to bring our matter to the public eye.”


Ethan Kim of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.