Bad boys or heroes?
Approximately 1600 Korean farmer-activists came to Hong Kong for the WTO Ministerial, mostly members of the Korean Pleasants League and Korean Farmer's Solidarity. The Korean government has been opening up the Korean rice market to cheap foreign rice imports, but Korean rice farmers can't compete against cheap rice from places like the U.S. (where agribusinesses grows it cheaply on huge farms) and Vietnam (where the price of labor is extremely low.)
Korean rice farmers stand to lose their farms and, to put it mildly, they are angry.
The Hong Kong Government decided to let everyone in who wanted to come to the WTO, in spite of the fearsome reputation of the Korean rice farmers back home where they frequently have violent confrontations with the police. This is a militant peasants organization, and clearly they are not just farmers, they are WARRIORS.
At the Cancun WTO Ministerial in 2003, Korean activist Lee Kyeong-hae committed ritual public suicide in protest of WTO agricultural policies. His name was invoked repeatedly at the Hong Kong rallies. The Koreans "take their political activism seriously."
It seemed like the Koreans were everywhere during WTO week:
They jammed Victoria Park for all the rallies.
They filled the streets when we marched.
They roamed all over Hong Kong when there weren't rallies or marches: twice I rode the MTR (subway) to a far location of Hong Kong, and when I emerged from the undergound station there would be a group of Korean activists on the sidewalk, handing out flyers to passersby and chanting anti-WTO slogans.
And they filled the jails on Saturday night. The police arrested 900 of them after a wild night of rioting in Wanchai. More on that below...
At the big rallies in Victoria Park the Koreans were very well organized. They sat on the grass in solidarity groups of about 20 to 30, in neat rows (all young Korean men serve in the army for two years.)
They brought graphic banners which left no doubt about their feelings..
They blew whistles and pounded drums and chanted and yelled and let everybody know they were here.
On Tuesday afternoon, thousands assembled at Victoria Park for a rally before marching through Hong Kong. After the rally, the Koreans broke out cardboard boxes they had brought their lunches in, and meticulously picked up all the garbage in the area.
Then some Koreans put on bright orange life jackets and fitted plastic wrap over their eyes. What were they up to?
We marched through the streets of Hong Kong and the Koreans carried banners and chanted and beat their drums and handed out flyers.
We arrived at the Cargo Handling Area which had been designated by the Hong Kong Government as a legal protest area. The Koreans with life jackets started jumping into the frigid water of Hong Kong Harbor.
They began swimming to the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, where the official WTO meetings were being held, about a kilometer away. Police boats tried to stop them but some swimmers made it all the way to beach near the Center. They were stopped by a high barrier along the beach, and swam back.
Another group rushed the police lines on land, also trying to break through to the Convention & Exhibition Centre. The police pepper-sprayed them and the Koreans tried to take the shields of the police.
They didn't get through on either attempt. We went home.
As I described on a previous page, on Saturday evening the Koreans directly attacked police lines in attempts to break through to the convention center. I observed Koreans beating police with bamboo poles (the poles were very thin, having served as flag carriers, but were nonetheless dangerous weapons) and throwing heavy steel crowd control barriers into the police lines. In hindsight, I'm a little surprised nobody was killed.
The next day, Korean spokesperson Lee In-sai apologized to the people of Hong Kong. He told the South China Morning Post: "We're so sorry for what happened that night and the troubles caused." He said his eyes were so painful from tear gas that "they almost popped out", but he still thought Hong Kong police actions were gentle. "I understand their actions. It's their duty to use pepper spray and tear gas...it's their job," he said. "But the way they fought back is quite similar to Korean police. Perhaps Hong Kong police watched many videos and learnt from the Koreans."
Other Koreans defended what had happened. Again, from the South China Morning Post: "If we did not use this means to demonstrate, but just marched casually, who would know we were protesting?" said Kim G-cheol, of the rice farmers federation. Compared with protests in South Korea, Mr. Kim said Saturday's was small and not brutal. "We have different cultures," he explained. He added: "The Hong Kong government, the police and Hong Kong people helped us a lot. They supported us and gave us drinks, food and money," he added. "Thank you very much."
Spoken like a gentleman and a warrior.
Korean rice farmers: bad-ass m_____f_____s.
I advise the WTO not to mess with them.