Anti-FTA protesters defy police ban
Thousands of farmers and workers yesterday clashed with riot police across the country in the second massive demonstration in a week against a free trade deal with the United States. Despite stern warnings from state authorities, about 120,000 anti-FTA protesters took to the streets in Seoul and six other major cities including Busan, Daegu and Gwangju, the Korea Alliance Against the Korea-U.S. FTA said.
About 10,000 protesters, including 5,000 farmers from rural regions, converged in central Seoul to press for an end to the trade negotiations and reform of the government`s agricultural policy.
Around 50,000 policemen were mobilized to prevent rallies nationwide including some 10,000 in Seoul, the police agency said.
Collisions took place at some highway tollgates as police tried to block farmers from entering Seoul.
To keep regional activists from reaching Seoul, 13,000 policemen were at guard at over 1,000 tollgates.
The police was also on high alert following last week`s massive rallies. Over 73,000 farmers, workers and activists collided with riot police in 13 cities in one of the most violent protests in recent years. As protesters used sticks and stones, 63 people were injured, including 35 police officers and 21 protesters, causing some 670 million won ($720,000) in property damage nationwide.
The anti-FTA coalition of about 300 civic groups has been banned from staging further rallies after the turmoil.
Pledging a peaceful demonstration this time, the alliance requested the police to permit its second rally, but their request was turned down. Despite the rejection, activists are also planning even more protests on Dec. 6, as Seoul and Washington prepare to open the fifth round of formal FTA talks.
Seoul and Washington have held four rounds of discussions so far on the proposed FTA, aiming to conclude the talks by March 2007 at the latest.
Korea`s anti-FTA activists and farmers are opposed to the talks, fearing that the deal will damage their livelihoods by enabling a flood of cheap U.S. farm products to enter the country.
After declaring a "zero tolerance" policy toward violent rallies, the government has been seeking to take harsh measures not only against anti-FTA protests but all other potentially violent rallies.
Blocking tollgates leading to Seoul, the police prevented several small groups of regional protesters from joining the demonstration in Seoul.
About 40 members of a construction labor union in Daegu and 33 farmers from North and South Gyeongsang Provinces were forced to return home.
A member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the nation`s umbrella unions, was arrested in Daejeon for violence against two policemen who tried to block him from entering Seoul.
"We have already asked leaders of the alliance to halt all demonstrations. We have no other means but to forcibly disband all protests under lawful procedures," the police said.
State police have already summoned 170 activists involved in last week`s violent rallies. Since 163 of those protesters failed to show up, the police are planning to request arrest warrants.
Labor workers joined in yesterday`s unrest with the KCTU launching its second general strike opposing government-led labor bills and the FTA.
Some 36,000 union members of Hyundai Motor, the nation`s largest carmaker, and Ssangyong Motors joined in yesterday`s walkout.
The radical labor group launched a general strike last week, demanding the government scrap new labor regulations. The KCTU continued additional partial strikes throughout last week.
The government`s new labor bills were agreed to by representatives from labor unions, employers and the government on Sept. 11 without the participation of the KCTU. The three parties had agreed to delay two of the most controversial measures - dropping full-time union officers from company payrolls and permitting multiple trade unions at a single company - until the end of 2009.
Threatening to escalate industrial actions, the KCTU has been demanding immediate implementation of the multiple union system and insists that the issue of paying full-time union officers should be left to individual companies.