SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Hundreds of South Koreans called for new protests of conservative President Park Geun-hye, whose increasingly harsh treatment of union members and dissidents has led to criticism comparing her with her late dictator father.
The rally Saturday will be the latest in a series of mass protests in recent months, although police believe the turnout will be smaller than huge demonstrations earlier this month and on Nov. 14, when dozens were injured in a clash between police and protesters.
Although Park still has a strong base of supporters, dissatisfaction has been growing. Demonstrators criticize her conservative policies in labor, trade and education and also what they see as her attacks on personal and political freedoms.
There is also widespread frustration among young people over joblessness and inequality, which has inspired an Internet buzzword, “Hell Joseon,” referring to the feudal Joseon kingdom that ruled Korea before it was colonized by Japan in the early 20th century.
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Government figures show that the unemployment rate for people under 30 is approaching levels not seen since the late 1990s, when millions lost their jobs during a crippling financial crisis.
The demonstrations have grown because protesters believe their causes have been neglected by politicians and the media, said Chung Jaewon, a social science professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University.
Park’s government has responded by clamping down on the labor and civic organizations involved in organizing the protests.
Prosecutors are also considering indicting an arrested labor union official for sedition, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, over the eruption of violence at the November rally. South Korean courts have not convicted a defendant of sedition since 1986, when dictator Chun Doo-hwan was in power, legal experts say.
Police have also vowed tougher actions against protesters who use violence. Critics, however, say the injury of a 69-year-old protester, who remains in a coma, and the heavy use of tear gas and water cannons mixed with pepper spray mean police put lives at risk last month by using unreasonable force to break up the demonstrators.
A follow-up rally on Dec. 5 was peaceful as thousands of people — many donning masks of Guy Fawkes, Marvel superheroes and other characters to protest Park’s comments comparing masked protesters with terrorists — marched toward the Seoul hospital where the man in a coma was being treated.
Park’s government has also come under massive public criticism for its botched rescue operation during a ferry disaster last year that killed more than 300, mostly school kids.
Park is the daughter of slain military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, and whose legacy as a successful economic strategist is marred by a brutal record of civilian oppression.