South Korea′s Park emerges from protests unscathed | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 17.11.2015
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South Korea's Park emerges from protests unscathed

Seoul was brought to a standstill over the weekend by demonstrators opposing labor reforms and government policies on school textbooks. Despite the unrest, South Korea's president has retained broad domestic support.

Police in South Korea are hunting Han Sang-goon, the recently elected president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, after demonstrations on Saturday ended with rioters brandishing steel pipes against massed ranks of police protected by shields and water cannons. Police estimate that around 68,000 protesters were involved.

The unions, on the other hand, insist that 130,000 people took part in the largest anti-government rallies since 2008 and brought together unions and civil rights organizations that oppose plans being pushed through by Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president. The new measures proposed by Park's government are set to reform the economy and labor laws as well as giving the government the ability to write its own textbooks for use in South Korea's schools - arguably the most controversial measure.

Han has been a staunch opponent of the reforms and his confederation of 53 labor unions has vowed to "immobilize the country" if the government does not halt the bill.

South Korean police uses water cannons against protesters marching towards the presidential house in Seoul, South Korea

During protests in Seoul, police fired tear gas and water cannons into the crowd

Ruling party not bending

The ruling Saenuri Party is showing no signs of acceding to those demands, accusing organizers of Saturday's demonstration of conducing an "illegal political rally" and demanding harsh punishments for the leaders of the protest.

The opposition party New Politics Alliance for Democracy, on the other hand, has criticized the police for excessive use of force and described their tactics as a "deadly suppression" of citizens' voices.

Twenty-nine protesters were admitted to local hospitals after being injured in the confrontation, including a 69-year-old farmer who suffered serious head injuries after being knocked over by a police water cannon.

"There is a very deep chasm between the left and the right in South Korea, although confrontations such as this have become rarer in recent years," Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, told Deutsche Welle.

"That chasm is in a whole host of areas, as we see from protests that have united a wide range of groups and individuals who are opposed to some part of Ms. Park's policies, but one of the most divisive issues is the school textbooks," he added.

Allegations of bias

The right-of-center government has intervened after concluding that the history books presently used in South Korean schools are biased towards left-wing descriptions of history and are even sympathetic to the regime in North Korea.

South Korean children attend a class

One of the most highly contested reforms involves the publication of government-approved history textbooks

"The right wants to get rid of what they see as communist tenets in these books but the left in South Korea sees this as an effort by a conservative government to monopolize history," said Dujarric.

The left says it expects that the government's new textbooks will whitewash the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, a general who led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. General Park is also the father of the present South Korean leader.

The left also points out that General Park served as a lieutenant in Japan's Manchuko Imperial Army.

Concern over the way in which history is taught in South Korea has also been voiced by overseas rights groups.

"By seeking to strictly control students' knowledge of history with government-controlled textbooks, the South Korea government is entering on to a path of propaganda and censorship that runs contrary to international human rights standards," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

'Narrow-minded policy'

"President Park should urgently drop this narrow-minded, rights abusing policy," added Robertson.

"The South Korean government should encourage debate and discussion about historical issues, instead of trying to impose a single, uniform version that conforms to the views of the government in control."

A protester reacts as water mixed with tear gas liquid is sprayed by police to disperse protesters during an anti-government rally in Seoul, South Korea

The union confederation has threatened to "immobilize the country" with strikes if the government doesn't stop its reforms

Despite the spirited protests, there are no signs of further unrest in the South Korean capital, according to Rah Jong-yil, South Korea's former ambassador to London and Tokyo.

"These protests will not have any effect on the government or its policies of civil society at all," he told Deutsche Welle.

"They have already petered out and the radical opposition that organized Saturday's events is already outside the political arena and is not able to mobilize large numbers of people on a regular basis," argued Rah.

"Ms. Park is quite secure as she looks forward to the elections for the national assembly in April of next year," he added. "Her support ratings have dropped slightly since the debate over the school textbooks erupted, but she is still strong enough."

According to Rah, Park is "quite unusual as a president with two years of his or her term left." Rather than easing up on political reforms and losing momentum at the end of her tenure, "she is being very proactive in her leadership. She is taking the initiative and the offensive on issues," he added. "That's why I see her as being so secure."

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