Last night after work I went to a happy hour in downtown Seoul. I was surprised to find that my way was blocked by a very large group of protesters, the largest I’ve seen since I arrived in Korea. The protesters were in full force and protesting the Korean National Assembly’s recent ratification of a deal to increase nearly double the quota of imported rice from 4% of the Korean rice market to 7.96%, phased in over the next nine years. Imported rice is a topic for economic policy wonks, but on the streets and in the fields of Korea, rice brings out the passions of the Korean people. 7.96% does not seem like a big deal to foreigners, who note that as much as 92.04% of the Korean rice market will remain the hands of Korean domestic rice producers through 2014. However, rice is an inevitably explosive topic in Korea (perhaps that’s why the Korean word for rice sounds like "pop"). Some Koreans oppose the opening because of market share concerns and the assumption that the price of rice in Korea will go down as the market opens to imports.
Anyway, I walked through the police lines and protesters to get to where I needed to go. Although I was briefly caught in the middle of some marching policemen in riot gear, I made it through without fail. Tthe protesters rallied in opposition to foreign rice imports, yet as a foreigner I did not feel threatened as I walked through the protesters. They were not overly aggressive, and I felt safe with all the policemen close by me. I reckon that about 500 protesters showed up for the protest, most of whom appeared to be in their 20’s and 30’s. I doubt that most, if any, were Korean rice farmers. Most were likely students or members of Korean unions. The sheer number of protesters, policemen, the blocked traffic, the bonfires in the street, and the silhouettes of the rally leaders under the streetlit statue of Yi Sun-Shin cast a surreal pall over the scene. I wasn’t the only pedestrian passing through the protest, but I felt conspicuously out of place as I walked there.
This wasn’t the first rally I’ve seen, but it certainly was the largest I’ve seen here. Korean protests are quite unique. They are Asian in nature, emphasizing union and solidarity over individual protestation common in the West. In order to plan a Korean-style protest, you need to do the following:
- Wear matching jacket vests and hats. You need to wear color-coded jacket vests against light colored clothing and matching baseball caps. The caps and vests should ideally contain some slogan related to the topic of the protest.
- Wear white arm bands with red or black lettering. It’s always a good fashion accessory to have a conspicuous arm band on your arm featuring a protest slogan. If you don’t have a hat, you can substitute it with a protest headband.
- Hold the rally in an open location as close to the source of the irritation or at a patriotic rallying point. For example, anti-Japanese demonstrations are typically held near the Japanese Embassy. Anti-American or anti-U.S. Forces Korea protests are typically held either near the American Embassy or a U.S.-ROK military installation. You can also protest near the statue of Yi Sun-Shin or the statue of General Douglas MacArthur in Incheon. This protest was near the Blue House, the Korean White House, following another rice protest near the National Assembly in Yeoido.
- Make sure that at least five policemen are in attendance for every protester. There’s nothing better to magnify the effect of a protest than to bring out five additional people for every protester who comes to the rally.
- Designate at least one man and one woman to work the bull horn. The bull horn is a very effective way to address a large crowd. Male and female rallying cries show solidarity and promote diversity and equality.
- Sing patriotic union and solidarity songs. Protesters draw from a large repetoire of songs and chants with which to rally to their cause and announce their message.
- If the rally is large enough, the police will close off the street for you, amplifying your message by impacting the community at large. There is nothing like getting the attention of everyone driving in a five-kilometer radius who is caught in horrendous traffic and must find alternative driving routes.
- Serve food, water, and soju for large and lengthy rallies. A large crowd will be a hungry crowd, so a good way to control and entice the crowd is to offer food, water, and soju. I thought it ironic that the protesters served ramen noodles made of wheat and bottles of soju, a potato alcohol, at a rice protest. Of course, ramen and soju are cheap and plentiful but not very symbolic at a rice protest.
- Build some bonfires in key intersections to keep warm and cook food. Use whatever you can find, whether it is wood or plastic. The downside to this strategy is that the police must keep firehoses handy, which they could use to douse protesters as well as fires.