[Updated below; S. Korean prosecutors are seeking to court-martial civilian demonstrators, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that.]
There are some encouraging signs that the government and Korean society are losing patience with violent protests. Violent attacks on U.S. troops in Korea are old news, of course, but now that the red guards have attacked Korean troops (and even the mothers of riot policemen) the soldiers’ parents have had it. Have a look at the ineptitute and weakness of this government:
The Defense Ministry said before the clash that it had ordered the troops not to use force against protesters under any circumstances. They were to have been protected by a cordon of riot police, armed with batons and shields; the police, however, themselves demoralized after being accused of causing the deaths of two farmers during violent protests in Seoul last November, were unable to keep the protesters away from the troops.
. . .
The ministry said it might give the troops at the site riot gear, but had ruled out the use of tear gas or firearms. “The situation has come to a point where telling the soldiers just to sit back is not appropriate anymore,” a defense official said. Yoon Kwang-ung, the defense minister, yesterday visited the Gyeonggi province hospital where the injured soldiers were recovering.
Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the soldiers’ parents:
Angry messages were posted on the ministry’s Web site over the weekend, accusing officials there of failing to defend the troops from violence-prone demonstrators. A ministry official said they had also received numerous angry telephone calls.
. . . .
Soldiers’ parents turned their wrath on the demonstrators as well as the ministry. “Taking away their helmets and beating up people can only mean they want to kill people. I don’t know whether what they argue for is wrong or right, but it’s hard to understand their actions,” said Lee Gyeong-suk, 45, the mother of Private Lee Kang-woo, 21, who was hit on the head with a stone in the melee.
Now, the prosecution is commencing a major enforcement action against these radical left thugs — to include what might have been some ruling party voters — on the very eve of the May 31st elections. It looks like a great sign for the Democratic Labor Party.
The prosecution has asked for detention warrants against 60 protesters who they say were instigators or participants in attacks on the unarmed troops and on riot police. Prosecutors said that none of the 60 were area residents, supporting the contention of defense officials that the continued violence at the base site had been instigated by outsiders.
. . . .
Police said a task force of 20 officers had been formed to search for and arrest three officials of the civic groups that organized the bulk of the demonstrations around the base area.
The Hankyoreh picks up a Yonhap report with more details:
South Korea’s prosecution said Saturday it will sternly handle protesters against the expansion of U.S military base south of Seoul who were violent.
The prosecution said it has already requested arrest warrants for 37 protesters on charges of cutting through a barbed wire fence and infiltrating an area designated for the construction of an expanded U.S. base in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, Friday. More than 500, mostly anti-U.S. activists and college students, have so far been taken into custody since evictions of local residents and civic activists from the area and the setting up of the fence began on Thursday.
On Sunday, the prosecution plans to request additional warrants to detain up to 60 protesters out of about 2,000 who clashed with unarmed soldiers Friday. The Defense Ministry set up a 29-kilometer-long wire fence near U.S. Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek the previous day.
“We cannot but take strict legal actions against violent protesters who oppose the U.S. base relocation,” Lee Gwi-nam, a senior prosecutor, told reporters.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I believe that people have a right to organize unions. I believe that people have a right to assemble and express their views. People whose land is seized by the government have a right to reasonable compensation. Police must be accountable when they use excessive force. Those are not the issues here. The issue is how people should express their views in a democracy. When protestors and trade unionists habitually bring sticks, rocks, bottles, and other weapons to demonstrations, they’re thugs. No one has a right to derail democracy and civil discourse with violence.
Update 5/8: On the other hand . . . .
I’m no expert on Korean law and what it says about civilians before courts-martial, but this troubles me:
[Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung’s] remarks came hours after a local court issued only 10 arrest warrants out of the 37 requested by prosecutors. Application of military law is expected to bring stricter punishment for violators, analysts said.
This is a tough one for me, because I stood up and cheered when Yoon said, “Peaceful rallies are allowed to take place but violent acts should not be condoned.” That’s absolutely right, and I certainly hope that the Justice Ministry and the courts see things that way. But when the military gets into the business of criminal justice, you’re on dangerous ground. Furthermore, the Korean magistrates may well have found insufficient evidence to indict the defendants, something my personal experience with the Korean police and prosecutors tells me is a distinct possibility. Could this be a case of the Defense Ministry and the Justice Ministry being at odds politically, with one trying to step in where the other has failed? Or is the MND discarding burdens of proof and judicial independence to make up for poor quality police work?
In the same realm, I’m dismayed by this:
“We will provide soldiers stationed there with protective masks and batons used by police for self defense. They are not for subduing protesters but for protecting soldiers from illicit acts,” Yoon told reporters.
What’s next — riot police on the DMZ? How about instructing the riot police to photograph, film, and arrest anyone who brings a weapon to a demonstration? How about hard time for those who conspire to commit acts of violence? Not every law enforcement problem requires you to invent new laws and sidestep the old ones.
I yield to no one on wanting violent thugs punished to the fullest extent of the law — political motive or not — because that’s necessary to protecting the peaceful functioning of democracy. I don’t support compromising the rule of civil authority to do that, however, which is why the use of courts-martial against civilians makes me uncomfortable.
Worse, like the Kang Jeong-Koo case where the prosecution overreached and tried to prosecute non-violent (and false, and risable) speech, this plays into the far-left fantasies about a creeping restoration of military rule.