In recent weeks, there have been numerous protests by Korean farmers against the government’s liberalization policies. These have been dealt with by riot police in a brutal and violent manner, causing severe injuries. One farmer has even died due to the seriousness of his injuries: 43-year-old Jeon Young-Cheol died on November 24, 2005 after being beaten by the riot police during a rally in Seoul on November 15.
The rally was organized by the Korean Peasants League (KPL), in protest against the government’s anticipated rice import deals which would give nine rice exporting countries greater access to the Korean market in exchange for delaying full liberalization. Throughout the country, the KPL organized rallies and farmers took to the streets. At this time, Mr Jeon was reportedly beaten on the back of his head, right eye and chest by riot police attached to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency during their crackdown at about 7pm. Although his external wounds did not seem serious and he left the rally with other protesters without obtaining any medical assistance, on his way home he was overheard speaking to two witnesses, saying that his head was very painful after being hit by a police shield.
On November 17, Mr Jeon was taken to the Boryeong Asan hospital as he was unable to control his body movements. He was then transferred to the Chungnam National University Hospital, where he was hospitalized and treated for a cerebral hemorrhage. He underwent brain surgery twice but died at around 6:30am on November 24. The cause of death recorded by the autopsy surgeons of the National Institute of Scientific Investigation (NISI) was cerebral hemorrhage due to a skull fracture. However, a forensic doctor who participated in the autopsy on behalf of Mr Jeon’s family has requested another examination, as the group of forensic doctors carrying out the autopsy made no conclusion as to what caused the skull fracture.
Until a conclusive and impartial forensic examination is conducted to determine the cause of Mr Jeon’s death, it is completely inappropriate for the Seoul police to maintain, as they have done, that he died due to a fall in his home after the rally. Their premature and imprudent statements suggest that they are simply rushing to protect themselves from criticism over the violent way in which they have dealt with protesters during recent weeks.
The riot police brutality that Mr Jeon was a victim of is not an isolated incident. During the protests at the new U.S. army site in July 2004, many demonstrators were injured. A senior police commander, Mr Lee Jong-woo, was reported to have shouted to the riot police, ‘beat, kick and kill the demonstrators’. At that time about 150 demonstrators were injured, but no legal or disciplinary action was taken against Mr Lee. Believed to be an ‘expert police commander’, Mr Lee also supervised the riot police in the rally where Mr Jeon was beaten.
Mr Jeon’s death and the police brutality towards protesters comes as a shock from a democratic nation like the Republic of Korea, which has made significant headway towards respecting and realizing human rights in the last decade. The Korean government must reconsider its attitude towards the mounting protests against its policies relating to rice exports by a mass movement of farmers. Korean society has traditionally highly respected its farmers, most of whom have now been forced onto the streets due to government policies. While certain sectors of Korean society have labeled them as persons who bring shame to the nation through their protests, it is in fact the Korean government that brings shame on its farmers and citizens, by disrespecting their views, disregarding their protests and using brutal methods to suppress their right to assembly and protest in the name of development. Recently, a 38-year-old farmer, Chung Yong-pum committed suicide by drinking herbicide in protest against Koreas agreement with the U.S. and China to double rice imports by 2014. The Korean government should think seriously about why an individual would take his own life as the ultimate act of protest. Any agreements and schemes for the sake of development that disregard the rights of individuals cannot be sustained and are bound to produce catastrophic results.
Democracy in Korea was achieved through a relentless struggle by its citizens against military dictatorship, particularly during 1970-1990. The events of the last few days, when the Korean government has used thousands of uniformed and plain-clothed police to crack down on protesters, including farmers, brings back dark memories of military rule, when expression and dissent were brutally suppressed, and when atrocities such as the Kwangju massacre of May 1980 took place. No Korean citizen would wish to return his country to that dark past or to see the blood of more citizens shed. It is ironic that those in power today, including President Roh Moo-hyun, have themselves taken part in protests and relentless action to establish genuine democracy in the country. It is now time for them so sustain that democracy through the participation of all Korean citizens and with respect for their rights and views.
An immediate step in this direction would be to conduct a speedy and impartial investigation into the death of Mr. Jeon, including forensic reexamination. The riot police responsible for this brutal act as well as their superiors must be held responsible. Effective measures to bring all police brutality to an end must also be taken.
The Republic of Korea is regarded as a model of democracy and development in Asia. The present violence is thus a shock to people around the region, discouraging them in their own fight for democracy and justice. The people of Asia are looking towards the Korean society to set an example of a democracy in Asia where the views and rights of all its citizens, particularly vulnerable groups, are respected and upheld. To this end, the Asian Human Rights Commission urges the Korean government to do away with trade agreements that impoverish its own farmers and citizens.