A few days ago I had to fly to Japan, and on my way back to Korea I was kindly given the customary immigration entry and customs declaration forms that are so hard to fill out as you're standing in line waiting for your turn in immigration. But along with the two customary slips of paper I got a third. It was about information for foreigners regarding the upcoming G20 summit in Seoul. In English, Japanese, and Chinese, the pamphlet gently reminded me that as a foreigner I am not legally authorized to take part in any political activity, and if I were to protest against something related to the upcoming G20 event in November I would be arrested and deported. It also said that the area of Seoul near the COEX mall was going to be a restricted security area and I might not be able to get in there soon. Finally, the pamphlet advised me, as a foreigner, to stay away from the COEX mall area in order to not be mistaken for a protester and arrested by mistake.
This gave me something to think about as I sipped my complimentary wine (a wonderful and fluently trilingual Asiana airlines ticket agent had bumped me up to first class in Fukuoka for absolutely no reason whatsoever, and I was definitely enjoying it). I was slightly concerned because the COEX mall is nearby my house. Based on the small map in the pamphlet that I had been given, the restricted zone around COEX was only going to extend a few pixels outside of the complex's walls, but what about outside of that Would there be crowds of chanting Koreans going up against the typical scared-college-kid anti-demonstration police on my street Could I be arrested on my way home from work for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time
Of course the June G20 summit in Toronto is still fresh on the minds of many. There were a lot of numbers thrown around by the media about protests and violence and injury - some 10,000 people marched peacefully around Toronto but were met with a riot squad when they got near the security perimeter. The police arrested about 400 people during the summit. A twenty-something girl was arrested for blowing bubbles at a Canadian law officer, Constable Adam Josephs, and then became famous on YouTube. The officer, nicknamed Officer Bubbles online, is suing YouTube for defamation, because the video-sharing site hosted cell phone videos of him threatening and intimidating the bubble-blowing babe, and also hosted several fan-created animation videos depicting him arresting Santa Claus and President Barack Obama.
Korea has a very strong protest culture, and public demonstrations by Koreans in Korea and elsewhere have raised the bar on the definition of public demonstrations. The Korean government has a very active response force of helmeted-and-shielded college students that it buses out to confront such protests. The setup is ripe for many things to happen - whether they are humorously absurd abuses of power by the police, or more serious injuries or death. Unfortunately, by setting the tone with a threat on the airplane, before someone even gets to the country, I worry that the Korean government is stepping out with the wrong foot. It may be too late to avoid an embarrassing scene.
The G20 summits around the world are always known for demonstrations. This is an unfortunate consequence, but it can be foreseen. Toronto, with its mass arrests, clashes, violence, and demonstrations, does not create a good example for other cities to follow. One can only hope that Seoul treads a greater path. However, it is not looking good so far.