South Korean beef protests

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What began as a mass protest against the new right wing government's decision to resume US beef imports entered a new stage when around a million protesters took to the streets nationwide in South Korea on 10 June.

They demanded "complete renegotiation" of the deal and "[President] Lee Myung-bak out" of the four month old government.

It surprised not only South Korean society but the world with the spontaneity and creativity demonstrated by youth and students who are often labelled as "apolitical". The protests quickly grew into a broader movement for democracy and against pro-business reforms like privatisation of water, gas, electricity, health and education.

This, the biggest demonstration since the end of military dictatorship in the 1980s, has put the pro big business government on retreat. In an attempt to appease the angered public President Lee dispatched his negotiators back to the US to revise the beef deal and replaced some of his senior presidential staff members.

But what the mainstream media praised as "the new deal" is nothing more than a sham. As US trade representative Susan Schwab said, it is a transitional measure, not a complete renegotiation. The new faces of senior presidential staff are not much different from the old. Simply put, nothing has changed. Thus the movement is at a critical juncture - it has to make a serious political decision whether to put its words into practice. As I write, the representatives of various organisations that form the leadership of the movement are debating on what should be the next step.

Some, including All Together, a socialist organisation in South Korea, are arguing that the movement should aim to bring down the government. However, the reformists, NGOs and other civic groups are very reluctant to expand the movement, saying it is too early to demand the resignation of President Lee. The leadership of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has also been lukewarm in leading the movement. But when the government is mobilising all kinds of ideological and political means to suppress the movement, it is critical for workers to strike now and hit where it hurts the most by stopping the profit-making system.

This also leads to another debate in the movement: spontaneity versus organised leadership. In spite of the powerful energy contributed by the spontaneous participation of students and ordinary working people, the movement would not have mobilised a million protesters if there was no organised leadership. In fact, All Together played a crucial political role in pushing the movement forward when it was hesitant to transform itself from a cultural festival to a street protest paralysing downtown Seoul. Members of All Together threw themselves into all levels of the movement, arguing and discussing tirelessly with the organisers and radicalised young people on the effectiveness of the street protest and the direction of the movement.

Young people were at the forefront of the struggle. Through their actions they have convinced the people that they have real power. The movement is far from over.


CJ Park is a member of the South Korean organisation All Together