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Behind South Korean Protests, Angst and Growth
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Behind South Korean Protests, Angst and Growth

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Behind South Korean Protests, Angst and Growth

Behind South Korean Protests, Angst and Growth
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South Korea's highly organized street protest culture is capable of mobilizing tens of thousands of demonstrators at the drop of a hat. The culture is both the product of a rapidly maturing democracy and a sense of national crisis.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

To South Korea now, where protests against the import of U.S. beef have been continuing for more than a month and show no signs of letting up. Observers say it's an example of South Korea's culture of protests. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, this culture is both a product of a rapidly maturing democracy and a sense of national crisis.

(Soundbite of banging)

ANTHONY KUHN: Korean street protests are nothing if not high drama, and the political theater comes in many genres. There's the action variety pitting demonstrators against police and water cannons. It's seldom lethal, thanks to people like Shi Ming Yung(ph). The 23-year-old corporal is holding a pair of chopsticks, as he stands outside his police bus at lunchtime.

Mr. SHI MING YUNG (Police Corporal): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: We're just following orders, he says. Our main tasks are to prevent the protesters from getting to the presidential blue house, and to guard the American embassy.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Sometimes the protests take on a spiritual tone, led by Buddhists or Christian clerics. Yesterday demonstrators held a funeral for a young man who had burned himself to death last month to protest imports of U.S. beef. Ho Jin Quan(ph) has set up a shrine to the martyr. He says anti-government demonstrators share a broad common agenda.

Mr. HO JIN QUAN (Protester): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: We are opposed to the import of U.S. beef, he says, but we're also against the administration's policy of privatizing state-owned enterprises.

Ho is with the Korean confederation of trade unions, one of 1,700 liberal groups in a coalition that opposes imports of U.S. beef. They're on the Web at AntiMadCow.org. The groups have been successful at organizing in cyberspace. Netizens nicknamed President Lee Myung Bak Two MB, a pun implying that two megabytes is not enough memory for a national leader.

There are also right-wing pro-government coalitions. On Friday, veterans groups jostled with young anti-government protesters at a downtown intersection.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: A generation ago South Korea's military rulers sent paratroopers to shoot and bayonet protesters. Today some rallies are like love-ins. Young families wave candles, listen to folk music and munch on tasty street food.

Vendor Yi Tay Su(ph) is doing a brisk business selling barbecued chicken kabobs.

Mr. YI TAY SU (Vendor): (Through translator) I'm with the Vendors Union. The government's policy is to clear all us vendors off the streets, so we vendors are all united and opposing this policy.

KUHN: Whether pro- or anti-government, the protestors share a passion for their cause, and despite the carnival atmosphere, many demonstrators feel that what's at stake is nothing less than the fate of their nation.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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