A conversation with a South Korean Organizer at the G8 Protests
An interview with South Korean activist Dopehead Zo, by Sarah Lazare, Marina Sitrin, David Solnit and Asha Colazione.
The anti-G8 mobilizations have been bringing together inspiring organizers and activists from all over the world. Japanese precarious temp workers, calling themselves "Freeters", South Korean anti-military base organizers, Spanish media activists, Farm workers from Via Campesina, Australian human rights activists, German direct action organizers, and many others from North America, Asia, and Europe, have all come together to share stories, struggles, ideas, and to network and plan actions. At The Counter G8 International Forum in Tokyo, we met one organizer whose story is so compelling we needed to share it as soon as possible. The following is a selected transcription of our conversation.
Dopehead Zo is an activist who has been heavily involved in the South Korean demonstrations against the US beef import deals. Beginning in late May 2008, mass protests have rocked Seoul and other cities in South Korea, bringing hundreds of thousands, and at times over a million protesters together into the streets. These are some of the biggest mobilizations South Korea has seen for over two decades. These are both mass demonstrations and places for the creation of new social relationships between people. As one flyer put out by activists there reads: "Candlelight Vigils Evolving to a Street Rebellion Calling for Direct Democracy – We’ve Got the Power"
At issue is the decision taken by the new South Korean president – Lee Seok-haeng – to ease restrictions against US beef imports, most of which had been banned in 2003 after mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. The ban was a blow to the US beef industry, as South Korea was its third largest importer of US beef. Critics see the lifting of the ban as an effort to appease the United States at the expense of South Korean public health, and the trade deal has awakened broader feelings of discontent with the government’s pursuit of neoliberal reforms and close relations with the United States. The overwhelming public response has virtually paralyzed Lee Seok-haeng’s government and has caused him to start backpedaling on the agreement. Meanwhile, protests, rallies, and candlelight vigils continue to fill the streets of Seoul. Perhaps other forms of democracy are on the people’s agenda.
Dopehead Zo spoke with us for hours, sitting on the floor together after the forums of the day had finished. He shared his experience protesting in the streets of Seoul and described a new kind of social movement that is taking form. A movement comprised of, as he calls them, "common people." He describes forms of mass democracy in the streets, and the joy of being together to create new ways of relating to one another. He also explains what all of this has to do with the G8 protests and places it in the context of an overall struggle for social justice.
Q: Can you describe what it is like right now on the streets of Seoul?
A: People are holding candlelight vigils every night, with a minimum of 10,000 people in Seoul and several thousand in other cities. On weekends, we have 50 thousand or 100 thousand people participating. When it began, it was anti-US beef imports by the Korean government. The newly elected, right-wing neoliberal ex CEO South Korean president, wanted to give some good gifts or presents to the US. The first thing the new South Korean president did was to visit the US and beg for a good relationship, and for all kinds of things. Or go to Sarkozy. I hate to mention the president’s name. The gate to the US beef industry was the imports of US beef, every part of the cow – spinal cord, intestines, heart – the parts that other people usually don’t eat. I am a vegan myself, but many Koreans cook these parts and then they eat it. According to most calculations, the US beef industry would massively profit from beef imports, and once South Korea opens its markets to beef imports, other Asian countries will do the same. Talks between the two presidents took place in April, and before the talks, the two governments made an agreement and then it became known to the public in early May. As people heard more about the details of the agreement, they realized it was really unfair. Everyone could tell it was for the profit of the US beef industry, not the health of the South Korean people. If mad cow disease is in the US, there is no way to stop it with the import of US beef.
The agreement was really messed up. The general public found out about it and started a candlelight vigil. South Korean people started to pressure the government by taking to the streets every night with candlelight vigils. The government didn’t listen to us, of course. At first it was 2000 people then 20,000 then 100,000 … and then more and more people … People got angry and took to the street.
Eventually the government listened to it. The pressure got bigger. The Korean government knows how to control the movement people, because the resistance or the movement has been going on for 20 or 30 years, so there is kind of a pattern as to what we do when we do rallies or demonstration. Riot police know how to respond to these situations. But this new candlelight vigil – police do not know what to do. Because when police try to stop the rally, they don’t stop. They continuously move to another street. Before, back then, we had one clear target. Let’s say it was the US embassy in Seoul or the police headquarters or the presidential residence.
Now, people, common people, who didn’t actually know about the free trade agreement before or hadn’t heard of neoliberalism, like young couples with a babies, they come out into the streets with their baby in a stroller, or old people come out. So, you can see a whole new demonstrator. And there was no set pattern for when they were blocked by the police. The tactic that police used to block a road so that people cannot go in the path that they want to. In May and June, the people just started to flow, and the police realized they couldn’t contain the demonstrators if they used the ways they were used to, so they brought out a new way – water cannons. We haven’t seen water cannon for 5 or 10 years.
Q: Water cannon against the candlelight vigils?
A: Yes. Not only water cannons, but batons, shields and physical violence against people like me, with nothing – no weapons, no helmets. They also use fire extinguishers. Tear gas was kind of banned.
Q: What does the fire extinguisher do?
A: You use it and then demonstrators cannot breath so we have to pull back and disperse. The fire extinguisher fills the whole area instantly. We couldn’t do anything on the police buses. Some of the direct action we do is that we paint a lot of graffiti on police buses or the streets. At first the police started to arrest people, and beat people, and then it got such bad media coverage because like you said, it was a nonviolent protest, and so then the police responded with civil violence and they were criticized very badly. So then the new strategy that the police started to use was to block the whole area where any protesters could go. The streets of central Seoul became neutralized every night. No traffic at all.
Q: Could you describe a little bit of what it is like in the streets when there are hundreds of thousands of people, do they sing together, talk together, are they friends, what does it look like?
A: We try to do everything. I am a singer myself, so I perform three or four nights a week, five or six hours each night. I get exhausted. I sleep all day and then get up again in the morning. People who have never met before talk to each other and start talking about what we should do to make our voices heard. Amazing things have been created, like huge squares or spaces. We cook, we talk, we make a speech, and when we rally, we do that kind of thing too. And we dance.
Q: Can you talk a little more about the dissatisfaction with the relationship to the US and what that might have to do with the G8?
A: The newly elected right wing president had a big wish. They think that the neoliberal way is the only way, and the market is their god. The president is the ex CEO of Hyundai. He thinks that a working economy means that there is construction, buildings being built. Environmental activists think this could be a disaster. It was this new administration that made the general public realize that everything is related in the name of neoliberalism… We are taking this opportunity to spread this ideology – the idea that in order to become a leader we have to receive ideas in the name of neoliberalist policies. In the name of neoliberalism, we have to open our markets. The reason we have to open our Korean markets is that if we don’t do it, we will be a backwards country. That is a term that the ruling class loves to use. At first it was the US beef import issue, but then it was the government trying to impose its neoliberal policies at the same time. The president was rushing to realize his dream. The right wing loves him. These policies could affect peasants lives, or farmers lives, or small businesses.
Q: Does it feel like people are talking about that, like in grocery stores or schools?
A: Yes. It’s very natural for Korean people to talk about the US beef issue, and once you start talking about US beef the subject becomes linked to other related issues, like opening markets through FTAs [Free Trade Agreements], like with Japan, Korea, the EU, Chile, with the US, with China and privatization, because that is the big plan for the government. The government is promising that we are going to go "forward". That’s the major policy.
Q: How are things organized at night? Are there political parties? Unions? How do people know where to go?
A: The internet is amazing. I am really addicted to it. Internet is the main tool that we have been using. Text messages. Since the beginning, it was middle school and high school students who constituted the demonstrators, like ten thousand high school students and middle school students in their uniforms, and what they do is exchange text messages, like two thousand text messages every day to everyone: "tomorrow, 2:00, city hall square, let’s go, be there with a candle."
Q: The image that sometimes people have on unions or political parties taking chare is not true?
The candlelight vigil started with normal people and then they realized that no matter what the people did, the government would not listen to them. And then when the crowd began to take more to the streets, that is when the labor unions got involved. KCTU [Korean Confederation of Trade Unions] is a big labor union with about 700,000 union members and university student activists. They wanted to join and then some of them wanted to become the leaders of the movement and wanted to control the flow of the actions or rallies and then the general public started to yell at the wannabe leaders – "who do you think you are to try to control our movement. It is a people’s movement, not the movement of the elitist union members". It is for the common people. Every time professional activists try to regulate or suffocate the energy, the vibe, they fail. Miraculously, people succeeded in continuing their actions every day and every day. They didn’t get exhausted. Why, because they have never experienced something like this. When we have marches with big unions, it is often really boring, with all of us marching in line and the same old songs being played.
I play new protest songs. Those professional organizers get exhausted. They think it is not fun if you have thirty consecutive days of street demonstrations. But for these hundreds of thousands of people experiencing this, it was fun. Every day they realize something. Some of them even voted for the right wing president, when he said that he would make them all rich. But then they realized it was all lies. Then they got more angry and tried to find ways to make their voices heard.
The presidential residence was protected by a high mountain and armies of police. But then people started to infiltrate those blocs and then later we succeeded in gathering in front of the residential place. We could not do anything three miles near the presidential place. Accidentally on the part of the police bloc, we opened it, then lots of people went through a small hole, and then later, we gathered. It was early in the morning. It was thirty thousand people in early June it was first a large crowd demonstration in front of presidential palace since the people’s uprising in 1960.
I have been long-time activist since early 1990s.
Q: Does this feel different?
A: For me, not really different. I have been active in the movement for a long time. I don’t have any bad feelings regarding my comrades, but the way we do it is different. I am an anarchist myself, and the political movement in Korea has been influenced mostly by Marxism and the way that they organize.
Q: Do you think anarchism makes more sense to people now?
A: Definitely. Union leaders and organizers have been using their conventional ways of organizing and want to use them on the common people. People feel it is authoritative and don’t like it. If you have someone telling you what to do, you say, we don’t want that. In that sense, these are conventional movement people who think this new situation is anarchistic. We don’t use the term anarchist or anarchy. I can tell the way they do it is anarchistic, but it doesn’t matter, the ideology that you give yourself.
The president and the whole government, they are not willing to step down or anything, and the day before I came to Japan, police brutality was really incredible. Now the government and the whole right wing have made up their mind to crush the "violent" uprising. They say it is violent because we take over the streets. The government is using scare tactics – six water cannons at the same time – it is really scary. Fire extinguishers are used and it makes it hard to breath. Participation has been smaller after June 10, the nation wide day of action, when the government started to oppress us really heavily. The ministry of education, for example, sent orders to every school that no students could participate in the candlelight vigils.
Q: What are the demands of the people in the streets?
A: First, renegotiation with the US about beef imports, which the Korean government denied, they said that if we renegotiate, the credit of South Korea will be hurt in the international market. Lots of trade experts pointed out that it was all lies. It would not harm the Korean government if we renegotiate with the US. That is the first demand that we are still asking. The legal process is over, and now Korean importers are inspecting the US beef. The first demand is still in effect.
Second demand: the president publicly apologize or resign. Now it is becoming more and more for the resignation of the government.
The whole cabinet offered to resign to the president, but the president did not accept the resignation.
Q: Is there any formal organization of demonstrations?
A: There is a temporary organization of organizations.
The committee of all the organizations has a broadcasting truck with a big speaker, and when the rally begins, the truck plays protest music or they say something. If the police respond and approach the demonstrators, then the committee truck says something. If the common people don’t like it, like if the truck says ok, we have to pull back, and then it’s just gone, then the people do not leave, they just stay there.
The thing is, nobody knows what’s going to happen. For 30 or 40 days, the police didn’t do anything and just let the people do whatever in the open space, and then people started to talk together about tactics, "do we use violence or nonviolence?" Every day, some people try to pull down police buses so that we can make our way to the presidential place. Some people yell that harming police property is a violent thing, or that repercussions from mass media will be big. Other people say police presence is violence itself so we should remove it.
There are some really exciting tactics that those organizers have never thought of, like making a styrofoam mountain so that we can cross over the police buses. It is decided in open meetings, every night, in small groups and large groups.
The sandbags – that was an amazing thing we witnessed one week ago - There was a huge construction site three miles away from where we were. Of course we were surrounded by police buses. We were talking about how to deal with this situation, and someone said, "ok, three miles away we have a construction site with huge piles of sand". Someone said, "how are we going to carry huge piles of sand?" We lined people next to each other from the construction site to presidential residence, then they carried sandbags, passing them from each person to each person. After three hours, we piled three huge mountains of sandbags and then we could go over the police buses.
Q: Did you go over?
A: No, because once you get to the roof of the police bus, they hit you with water cannons. Many people got over with their flags. Symbolic resistance.
Q: What about food and water?
A: It’s incredible. People just pitch in money. Water, tea, coffee, sushi, kimpa, free every night. You can eat as much as you want. Street cafés open. Like one person drives a truck near the people and says this is a candlelight tea house and anyone can have cup of hot water or tea, and there is a cash jar and anyone can pitch in. For bathrooms we use nearby buildings or bathroom trucks.
Q: What would be your dream scenario?
A: The president steps down, and then, I don’t know. I don’t have a big dream. If everyone has his or her own small dream and we have our own small dreams and we can think about our way to make our dreams come true … I don’t picture a large model of society. It is created together. It is the kind of thing you can imagine through cooperation. The small group I have been working with is called blood sisters. I sew cotton pads and we sell reusable, washable menstruation pads, with organic cotton.
For the last ten years, I have been working on many issues and things that I think are really important that would affect people’s lives. For example, we try to get the word out about the FTA. We have been trying to spread it, we wished that people would know about it, but we couldn’t - we couldn’t control people’s thinking. But then, after the autonomous voluntary movement, people started to figure out everything by themselves. It was really, really amazing. Somehow it was a kind of miracle. Everything we talked about came true – all of a sudden.