Continuing mass protests across South Korea have been predicted and are not surprising. Although some people tend to see in the wave of public disobedience a mere anti-Americanism, experts and political analysts identify deeper reasons for discontent.
‘Suip-kogi’ [imported beef] or ‘Mije’ [American imperialism] is only a pretext for the 96,000-strong demonstration to vent people’s anger at and frustration with the obvious return to the old era of dictatorial policies. Since February 2008, President Lee Myung-bak, nicknamed ‘Bulldozer’, has performed a rough start which instantly reminded the Korean people about their recent past, so unpleasantly associated with the regime of Pak Jong-hee. However the twenty years of democratic reforms and the ten years of engagement and cooperation with the North have taught South Koreans to value their freedoms and defend their rights.
SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea’s new parliament opened to a near half-empty chamber Thursday after an opposition boycott, deepening the crisis facing President Lee Myung-Bak amid growing protests over US beef imports. Lee was to have delivered a speech but the opening ceremony was called off as opposition lawmakers chose to concentrate their forces for a 72-hour rally against government plans to resume imports of US beef. It meant the National Assembly did not officially convene, although ruling party members did take their seats for a session.
Meanwhile, thousands of people gathered in downtown Seoul to kick off the three-day rally over the holiday weekend, the latest in a series of protests that have increasingly called on Lee to step down. Police are braced for possible clashes after rallies earlier this week led to hundreds of arrests and scores of injuries when demonstrators attempted to march on the presidential palace. Analysts say South Korea is facing a leadership crisis just 102 days into Lee’s presidency.
Hahm Sung-Deuk, political economy professor at Korea University, said the situation would worsen unless Lee dropped the forceful style that earned him the nickname “Bulldozer” when he was a construction company executive. He urged a radical solution: “He must forget about the 102 days since he took office and start from scratch by replacing almost all his presidential staff and government ministers.”
Lee swept to victory in December’s presidential elections on a promise to use his business experience to revive the sluggish economy. That has quickly soured however. Expectations of a quick turnaround are fading fast, he has been criticised for appointing senior officials who have been linked to land speculation, and there is strong opposition to a cross-country canal project he is pushing.
Kim Il-Young, a political science professor at Sung Kyun Kwan University, said the beef deal was the last straw. “This is not only the president’s mess,” he told AFP, “but a crisis for the country’s representative democracy as a whole.”
Earlier Lee’s conservative Grand National Party suffered heavy losses in a series of local elections, its first electoral test since taking power. The GNP won only one of six contests where it was fielding candidates for the post of local government chief, and only seven of 29 assembly seats. The main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) was the big winner, with the other seats shared by splinter groups and independents.
Meanwhile, opposition parties and a group of liberal lawyers — the latter backed by a petition of more than 96,000 people — filed separate lawsuits to the Constitutional Court asking it to strike down the beef deal.