Following in the footsteps of her dictator father, South Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye, is cracking down on labor and citizens groups opposed to the increasingly authoritarian policies of her ruling “New Frontier” party known as Saenuri.
The situation could reach a critical point this weekend, when tens of thousands of workers organized by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) join forces with farmers, students, and other civic organizations in a national action in Seoul to protest Park’s conservative labor, education, and trade policies.
On Saturday, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency banned the march, with Park’s Justice Minister Kim Hyun-Woong vowing to “uproot illegal and violent demonstration…no matter how much sacrifice is required.” Meanwhile, the president herself equated the protesters—some of whom wear masks as protection from riot police—to terrorists.
“Given that the extremists of the Islamic State group hide their faces, we should ban demonstrators from wearing masks in the future,” Park said, before flying off to Paris for this week’s Climate Change Conference. She last visited Washington in October, when President Obama, her country’s strongest ally, promised that the United States “will never waver” in its commitment to South Korea.
But inside Korea, her actions have brought back memories of her father, General Park Chung-hee, who seized power in 1961 and ruled with an iron hand until he was assassinated in 1979 by the director of the country’s equivalent of the CIA.
In 1979, Park’s government was in the midst of a savage repression of workers and students who were trying to organize for improved conditions and livable wages during a time of rapid, export-led economic growth. After his death, conditions worsened when another general, Chun Doo-hwan, took over in a bloody coup that culminated in the Gwangju citizens’ uprising, which was put down with assistance from the United States. Chun continued Park’s draconian treatment of unions and dissidents for nearly a decade.
A democratic system was finally established in 1987 after millions of Koreans filled Seoul’s streets for weeks, demanding an end to military rule and for direct elections of their president. It was out of that tumult, and a series of famous industrial strikes, that the KCTU was born. It is now the country’s second-largest union group and by far the most militant.