On Tuesday, the first two hundred kilograms of American beef were sold to Korean consumers at a butcher shop in southern Seoul – after months of protests against the beef imports. Meanwhile, South Korea is cracking down on "illegal anti-government activity" after riots broke out over the weekend. The administration blames radical trade unions and leftist civic groups for inciting hostilities.
Candlelight vigils turned violent over the weekend
Several hundred demonstrators joined a procession around downtown Seoul on Tuesday evening.
Riot police lined the roadside ensuring that no one made it anywhere near government offices or the US embassy. The demonstrators were quiet and marched peacefully with candles in hand.
Since the government launched its crackdown on the protests on Monday, the scene in the nation’s capital looks a lot different than it did just a few days ago.
US assurances have not helped
An estimated 18 thousand people took to the streets over the weekend after the ban on US beef was officially lifted. Despite a deal that Seoul brokered with Washington to ease the public’s concerns over the meat’s safety, many people here still believe they will catch mad cow disease.
Reassurances by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in town to discuss North Korea, made no difference to the protestors.
"We are cooperating closely and we will continue to closely cooperate on the concerns of the Korean population about beef. I want to ensure everyone that American beef is safe,’’ Rice said.
Protests turn violent
The candle light vigils, which up until this time had been largely peaceful, turned violent. Demonstrators fought with police who in turn fired water cannons to disperse the angry mobs.
Rioters retaliated by hurling water bottles and vandalized riot police buses. Following these incidents, Seoul said it would no longer tolerate this type of aggression.
The violence coincided with the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Union’s decision to call a general strike and join the protests. The KCTU’s international director, Lee Chang Goon, says the new deal on US beef does not go far enough. "We are demanding the fundamental renegotiation of protocol of US beef import,’’ says Lee.
Lee strongly denies that the KCTU condones violence and says the armed riot police instigated the clashes. "The riot police attacked the demonstrators with shields with stick. Due to the attacks by the riot police, very few demonstrators were very angry about that violence,’’ he says.
Government taking action against protestors
Government prosecutors say they are investigating organizations and individuals who encourage violence and verbally attack President Lee Myung bak. So far, authorities have raided the offices of at least two civic groups who sponsor the demonstrations.
The move is sure to anger many South Koreans who already accuse the President of acting like an authoritarian ruler.
Trade unions and civic groups are vowing to continue the protests despite the tighter security. Thousands of activists are expected to come to Seoul this weekend to partake in another mass demonstration.