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South Korean trade union boss surrenders

With an arrest warrant hanging over his head, trade union boss Han Sang-Gyun has handed himself over to the authorities. This, however, will not solve the country’s underlying issues.

At 11.15am local time, Han Sang-Gyun presented himself to the police, 45 minutes before his ultimatum expired. For nearly a month, the head of the trade union umbrella organization KCTA (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) barricaded himself in the Buddhist Jogye Temple in Seoul, attempting to avoid arrest. During this time, thousands of police were involved in an ongoing operation, to capture him.

Officials had initally planned to forcibly remove Han from the temple on Wednesday, December 9, but retreated after agreeing to the monks' request to resolve the situation peacefully within 24 hours.

Han Sang-Gyun is now in prison. Sven Schwersinksy, resident representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Seoul, expects the prosecution will make the case for a lengthy prison sentence. "They hold him responsible for the violence that erupted at the November 14 demonstrations." That Han, himself, took part in the protests was a surprise for Schwersinsky because by that stage, he had already gone into hiding.

Südkorea Polizei vor dem Tempel wo sich Han Sang-Gyun versteckt

Police guard the Buddhist temple where union boss Han Sang-Gyun has been hiding for nearly a month.

During the summer, Han had holed himself up in the KCTA headquarters, after a warrant for his arrest was made in June following his call for a general strike back in spring. "He is accused of compromising trade among businesses and shops with his call for a general strike. This is a criminal offence under Korean civil law. The practice of Korean authorities prosecuting trade unionists for strike action under this Article, has been repeatedly condemned by the International Labor Organization (ILO)."

Uneasy fall in South Korea

The arrest of the trade union leader is the latest development in a long series of conflicts in the country, that has sparked anger among the population against the conservative government of President Park Geun-hye. This month alone, there have already been two mass demonstrations in Seoul – the latest one last Saturday. It's not clear exactly just how many people attended the demonstration at the weekend, with police estimating around 14,000 people, while organizers put the figure around 50,000.

Those protesting against the government have different backgrounds: parents who lost their children on the ferry that sank in April 2014; students and teachers; struggling farmers; and of course the trade unionists protesting against a labor market reform.

Brutal methods

The demonstration was organized by the KCTA, chaired by the now-imprisoned Han Sang-gGun. " The KCTA is powerful and influential, but also leans towards militancy. It was not involved in the negotiations of the labor market reform," says Lars - André Richter, spokesperson for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in South Korea.

Demonstration Seoul Südkorea

The November 14 demonstrations escalated. The polics used water cannons to subdue the protestors.

The demonstration last weekend was largely peaceful compared to November 14 demonstration. Then the situation had escalated rapidly, with protesters taking metal pipes and sharpened bamboo sticks in hand. The police responded with a pepper spray and water cannons. "Rather than de-escalating the situation, police methods were conversely very confrontational, says Schwersinsky. The police presence was huge and, at times, aggressive.

"The culture of protest in South Korea has a more brutal face than in Germany," explains Richter.

New demonstration announced

A game of verbal warfare has been adopted by President Park. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to block the demonstrations using a temporary injunction but the court rejected it. Park described the demonstrations as illegal and went even further. "In a cabinet meeting, it said compared the protesters to "Islamic State" terrorists," says Schwersinsky .

"The turbulent events of recent weeks have not harmed the President's standing," says Richter from the Nauman Foundation. The popularity ratings of the president in most polls is still greater than 50 percent. The government cannot rest easy, however, as the trade unions have announced a third demonstration will take place on 19 December.