Thursday, March 20, 2008

What's that I smell? Authoritarianism?

It smells a bit like tear gas...

From today's Hankyoreh
[Editorial] Trading Public Safety for Law and Order

The prosecution and the police are speaking with the same voice on the need to “establish law and order.” Yesterday, the Ministry of Justice, in a regular report to the president, said it would emphasize establishing law and order and reviving the economy. The police say they are going to make sure a tone of law and order “takes root.” They talk also about common public safety, but by the looks of it, things are slanted towards the political.

The government’s posture here is very dangerous. The justice ministry says it is going to actively intervene in illegal or politically-motivated strikes in their early stages and thoroughly pursue organizers and have them prosecuted. It also said it would excuse from responsibility all “legitimate” use of police power. The police are already saying they are going to create brigades of riot police that act as arrest teams at protest sites. This is reminiscent of the “Baekgoldan,” the “white skull corps” of President Chun Doo-hwan’s Fifth Republic.

Connect the dots and you see that these are the hard-line answers of two decades ago. It is clearly going to lead to the kinds of police abuses and excessive suppression of assemblies that lead to unfortunate mishaps and intense confrontations as people respond to such events in protest. Democratization broke that cycle, but now, twenty years later, we are returning to the mess of yesteryear? This recklessness that has its eyes closed to history is saddening. One worries even more that this kind of government response will be used as a way to stifle opposition to various current issues such as the Grand Korean Waterway. It threatens the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of assembly, protest and expression.

A bigger concern is that these measures are mainly targeting laborers. A case in point is a government plan to revise labor laws. Under the revisions, the police will have the power of the prosecution to quell illegal strikes and illegal demonstrators will be subject to both criminal and civil punishment. Various trade unions have already lost influence because of searches, arrests and lawsuits for extraordinary damages. If the government’s plan is realized, the activities of the labor unions will be weakened even further. The government, meanwhile, will reconfigure labor laws to favor businesses, and is likely to make companies less responsible for various illegal acts. In this way, the government will suppress one side while supporting the other, aggravating labor-management conflicts.

It would be natural to assume, then, that the government’s focus on law and order will lead to a neglect of public safety. The police will have to monitor labor unions and chase illegal strikers, while at the same time carrying out its regular function of protecting the general public. If the president and the leaders of justice organizations become concerned about law and order, the police will also have to concentrate on that. The government will do nothing to ease civilian anxieties by paying lip service to public safety. The government should change its direction as soon as possible.

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