SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s most tenacious protesters compare themselves to warriors, and their demonstrations to a life-or-death struggle against evil.
They are known around the world for their passion, persistence and flamboyance. Their demonstrations — spontaneous and meticulously planned, large and small — form a near-constant backdrop for the 10 million people living in Seoul, the capital.
Their causes are rooted in the country’s tumultuous history: a brutal Japanese colonization until 1945, the subsequent division of the Korean Peninsula, three years of vicious warfare and decades of military dictatorship that gave way to democracy as South Korea became one of Asia’s strongest economies.
The country’s power structure, however, remains dominated by a wealthy clique and its cronies. And that’s one reason for the protesters’ intensity, said Robert Kelly, a political scientist at Pusan National University in South Korea.
“People have grievances, and when the political structure is closed to their grievances, they go underground or they take to the streets,” Kelly said. “The biggest successes in opening up this closed democracy did not come by electing people … but by going out in the streets and rioting.”
Here’s a look at four of the country’s most determined protesters:
To convey the rage Choi Jin-ho feels over Japan’s claim to a small outcropping of South Korean-controlled islets, he sliced his left pinky finger. Twice.
The first time, doctors reattached the still-dangling digit. The second time, he severed it and mailed it to Japanese diplomats in Seoul. He later sliced off part of his ear.
“I do it because it has impact,” Choi, 51, said in an interview. “I care about my body … but I don’t think that negotiation will solve this issue.”
Another protest consisted of a dawn assault on the Japanese Embassy, a heavily guarded red-brick compound in downtown Seoul. He pelted it with bottles containing his own excrement. Last month he decided more was needed, so he mailed his excrement to Japanese politicians in Tokyo.
Asked why he goes to such extremes, Choi said it’s the only way he can express his anger and frustration over Japan’s claim to the disputed islets. He wants a high-level Japanese official to formally apologize.
“We are waging a war without guns,” Park Chan Sung said. The right-wing protester is known as “the arsonist” among media, police and fellow protesters because he often burns North Korean flags and effigies at the up to 15 protests he organizes a month.
He’s among many demonstrators — on both sides of South Korea’s bitter political divide — who formed their public identities during the clash of pro- and anti-government forces during the dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s.
They’re like actors, Park said. He studies demonstrations worldwide and measures his success by the media and government attention his protests receive. Failure is being ignored.
“A good performance is like the crown jewel of a protest,” Park said in an interview in his office, surrounded by photos of him leading rallies. “People like us — the experts — act as spokesmen for people in our society who have difficulty raising their voices.”
“FIGHT OR DIE”
One night in 2011, Kim Jin-sook took a flashlight and climbed 35 meters (115 feet) to the top of Hanjin Heavy Industries crane No. 85. For the next 308 days she refused to leave.
It had been 25 years since Hanjin fired her — for being elected a senior member of a labor union, she contends. She said that after marches, symbolic head-shavings, sit-ins and hunger strikes by protesters failed to produce change, she decided that something drastic needed to be done.
She chose the same crane where another worker, Kim Joo-ik, protested for 129 days before committing suicide by hanging himself from the machine in 2003.
“I went up without any thought of coming back down. I’d settled my affairs,” Kim Jin-sook said in a recent interview near the site of another labor protest in downtown Seoul. “I would either end everything or come down victorious.”
During her months atop the crane, fellow activists brought up water, clothes and three meals a day. She used a bucket for a toilet and slept inside the crane’s control cabin, which was about 1.5 meters in length.
After five months, she said, about 400 hired thugs surrounded the base of the crane, cutting off her supplies for three days. She said she fought back by emptying the contents of her toilet bucket on the thugs.
As the weeks stretched on, Kim sometimes had imaginary conversations with the worker who killed himself eight years earlier. She called the crane “a space that was closer to death than to life.”
Kim came down after striking a deal that she says the company later reneged on. She continues to protest against Hanjin, which didn’t respond to requests by telephone and email for comment.
Unlike some South Korean activists, Kim bristles at the term “professional protester.” She said she’ll stop if she’s rehired, and protests because she feels she has no other choice.
“Media and society don’t pay attention unless we go to extremes,” she said. “We keep protesting because we have to continue our fight or die.”
“I AM A MOUNTAIN”
Most days, Park Se-hwan can be found silently standing across the street from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
A middle-aged man with a close-cropped beard and a sun-scorched face, Park says he sees himself as a semi-permanent, one-man reminder to Japanese diplomats that South Koreans won’t forget past atrocities, including the sexual enslavement of Korean women during Tokyo’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula.
“I am a mountain they need to cross over, not a mountain they can move,” Park said in a recent interview at his post across from the embassy. “I want the Japanese people to see me and feel fear and know that they can’t mess with the Korean people.”
He has an 11 a.m. ritual singing the South Korean national anthem and cleaning a nearby statue of a young Korean girl representing the sex slaves. He visits other demonstrations around town, but usually spends about five hours each day in front of the embassy. He leaves around 8:30 p.m., after the Japanese flag is lowered from the roof and the Japanese ambassador heads home.
A former philosophy professor and ordained pastor, Park began his vigils a decade ago, when he was 50, after then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed to continue visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead, including war criminals.
Park said his wife works several jobs to make ends meet. He said his son initially opposed the protests and urged him to write books or lecture instead. But Park said standing sentry outside the embassy speaks stronger than words.
“I come here to wage war, with a soldier’s mentality. … I am determined to suffer as a martyr if necessary,” he said. “It would be hard for normal people to understand me. This is my life’s mission.”
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