Tension escalates as one million gather for vigils
June 10, 2008
Tensions are heightening as about one million people across the nation are expected to turn out for vigils to dramatize their opposition to U.S. beef imports today, the 21st anniversary of the grass-roots uprising which helped democracy be established here.
"Despite the candlelight vigils which we have continued against the decision to resume U.S. beef imports, the government and the National Assembly don`t appear to be listening to the voices of enraged citizens," Kim Dong-kyu, 36, an official from a coalition of about 1,500 civic groups, told The Korea Herald. "So, we have prepared the candlelight vigils involving 1 million citizens to signify people`s resolve to bring the government to justice if it continuously refuses to listen," he added.
The coalition, which is roughly translated as "the people`s council for countermeasures against mad cow disease," has been staging huge rallies since April 27.
There was a three-day vigil from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon in which tens of thousands of citizens assembled to demand renegotiation of the import deal and to criticize the Lee Myung-bak administration for "disregarding" public sentiment. The coalition plans to begin another vigil at Seoul Plaza at 6: 30 p.m. today.
About 300,000 people are expected to take part, its members said. The protests are expected to escalate throughout the week. On Friday, the sixth anniversary of the deaths of two schoolgirls who were crushed by a U.S. military vehicle, is set to be celebrated in Seoul.
As various conservative groups, including New Right Union, also plan to hold their own rallies this week at the same locations, clashes between the coalition against mad cow disease and other groups are likely, observers say.
The association of right-wing groups, called the "National Action Campaign for Freedom and Democracy in Korea," said it will hold a massive rally in front of Seoul Station. It is calling for prompt ratification of the free trade agreement with the United States. The association yesterday condemned the candlelight vigils: "(People leading these vigils) are committing gruesome acts as they are drumming up children, who look like they are haunted, by stirring fears of mad cow disease," it said. "Their objective is not to secure public health but to overthrow the regime by sparking bloodshed."
Various cultural events are also scheduled at the vigils today, with singers and an orchestra performing to commemorate the June 1987 movement against the military junta of President Chun Doo-hwan. In memory of Lee Han-yeol, who was a student at Yonsei University during the uprising, about 300 people will gather at the school and restage his funeral while they march from the school all the way to Seoul Plaza.
Lee died after he was hit by shrapnel from a tear-gas canister which struck his head during a demonstration one day before the massive protests against military rule in downtown Seoul. Yesterday, about 7000 people joined the candlelight vigils in Seoul and reiterated their demand that the import deal be either nullified or renegotiated.
Lee Na-rae, 21, a student at Seoul National University, said that she disapproves of taking legal action against the riot police who kicked her on June 1 during the protests. She said that those in charge of the police are responsible. The police agency said yesterday that it plans to seek arrest warrants for one or two protesters who damaged police buses with steel pipes during the protests on Sunday.
By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldm. com)