Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Union activist from POSCO struggle dies from police injuries

UPDATE (Aug. 8th): Here's the link to an ICFTU article condemning the police attack. They claim that with a US 6 Billion dollar profit last year, POSCO can well afford to negotiate. Meanwhile, the Hankyoreh reports that strikes in POSCO's home town of Pohang continue to escalate, as does the police reaction.

I had been joking to friends a while back that I hadn't seen the 1001 brigade of riot police at the FTA protests so I knew it was okay to attend without serious threat. I was curious where they were anyway but later found out when I watched footage from the suppression of the POSCO solidarity protests in Pohang that same week. I've written briefly before about the 1001 (and some of the other squads numbered in the low 1000s) and their sordid history: it seems they are the ones who have inflicted the most violence on protestors, causing, in many cases, irreparable damage, even death. Our reports on the deaths of farmers during last fall's rice liberalization protests you can see in our december archives. The South Korean media has also covered some of their tactics, such as sharpening metal sheilds, etc, and there have been inquiries before. Following the brutal suppression of a non-violent protest by Daewoo Union organizers, stock footage of the 1001 was used in the British Zombie film 28 days later: in that scene where they infect the apes with 'rage'.

I think it is time for a caimpaign to get rid of the 1001 itself, as well as the other quasi mafia-ish units that do similar work. Actually, I'm really curious to how this group was formed and recruited. It doesn't seem to be the ordinary conscript riot police but a special anti-labour crack squad. Anyways, I'm reprinting the news from today's Hankyoreh below:

The Death of a Labour Union Protestor

A laborer who took to the streets demanding better working conditions has died. Ha Jung-geun was part a demonstration in support of the Pohang Construction union's sit-in at POSCO headquarters when he was injured while police forcibly dispersed the gathering, and on Tuesday he lost his struggle to stay alive. Labor activists say his brain was injured when he was hit with a police shield. The police say that is not what happened. There will have to be an inquiry, but no one can claim with any confidence that his death is unrelated to harsh working conditions and the way the authorities handled the situation.

It is the police's hard-line response that led to this tragedy. Others at the same demonstration say all of a sudden that the police attempted to disperse the event by force. The union had gone ahead with the demonstration, despite a police decision not to permit it, but the police nevertheless should have been careful enough to make sure no one was hurt. Have they forgotten how the superintendent of the National Police Agency had to step down after two farmers lost their lives in the course of the "farmers' assembly" held late last year? Law and order are important, but people's lives still have to be held precious. Otherwise police authority loses legitimacy and becomes no different than simple violence.

To keep Ha's death from having been in vain, there needs to be a thorough investigation, and the police have to be made responsible for their actions if they are found to be at fault. It really is time for a change in the police's problematic methods of dealing with demonstrations. The most fundamental solution would be to end the vicious cycle of fight-to-the-death demonstrations and the government's high-handed ways of dealing with demonstrators. We do not mean to say that it is entirely the government's fault that things get violent. However, it is the government that holds the key to ending the cycle, not labor activists. Workers whose livelihoods are already at stake do not have the physical and mental endurance it would take to end the cycle of violence. The government needs to set an example by trying not to upset these workers, and respond peacefully to protests.

The current high-handed way of dealing with the Pohang labor union needs to stop. Some 58 people have been formally arrested, more than any in a single incident under Roh Moo-hyun's government, and even more are being prosecuted. POSCO is getting ready to sue the union with a massive lawsuit. This attempt to completely destroy the union organization is only going to incite more serious resistance. It is the wrong approach, unless the goal is to wage a war on unions. The government needs to give some serious consideration as to how to end the cycle.

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