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Tens of thousands march in Seoul, calling for ouster of president

New York Times - November 15, 2015

Choe sang-hunnov, Seoul, South Korea The police on Saturday fired water cannons and tear gas at thousands of protesters shouting for President Park Geun-hye's resignation while marching toward her office in Seoul in the largest antigovernment demonstration here in several years.

Tens of thousands of people wearing plastic raincoats filled a City Hall plaza in downtown Seoul, brought together by a host of antigovernment grievances, including Ms. Park's recent decision to replace privately published school history textbooks with a uniform, government-issued text.

The crowd, many of whom chanted "Down with Park Geun-hye!" and "No to layoffs!" surged down a 10-lane boulevard toward Ms. Park's presidential office, the Blue House, several blocks away. Officers blocked the marchers with barricades they built using 700 police buses linked together across the main street and other roads leading to the presidential compound.

While police water cannons blasted their ranks, demonstrators tried to create breaches by tying ropes to buses and pulling at them. Buses were coated with cooking oil to stymie protesters who tried to climb over. Riot police officers armed with plastic shields also guarded the roofs of the vehicles, repelling protesters, some wielding steel pipes and bamboo sticks as they approached the buses.

There were no immediate tallies of the number of people injured on either side. Water fired from the police cannons contained liquid tear gas and blue paint to help identify protesters for later arrest. Some protesters were knocked down by the water blasts and were dragged away by colleagues.

Ms. Park, who left early Saturday for international meetings in Turkey and the Philippines, has recently seen her approval ratings fall after her decision on the history textbooks.

Student protesters on Saturday said that the new textbook, to be issued by the government by 2017, would whitewash the legacy of Ms. Park's father, former President Park Chung-hee. Mr. Park was accused of collaborating with the Japanese colonial forces in the early 20th century, and in 1961 he seized power in a military coup and ruled South Korea as the leader of a dictatorship until his assassination in 1979. The country's conservative elites have credited him with guiding South Korea's economic growth during his rule.

Many of the protesters on Saturday were unionized workers who detest labor reforms pushed by Ms. Park. Labor groups said the changes would benefit only the country's powerful family-controlled conglomerates, known as chaebol, by making it easier to fire workers. The government said the changes were needed to help companies compete better with low-cost industries in China and to create jobs for young people.

Protest organizers said as many as 130,000 people joined the rally on Saturday, making it the largest such gathering under Ms. Park's government. The police put the number at 68,000.

During a news conference, Han Sang-gyun, the leader of the main labor group, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, warned against a widening gap between the rich and the poor in South Korea, saying that the chaebol were "wallowing in cash" while an increasing number of workers were forced to work on poorly paid temporary contracts.

Scuffles erupted when plainclothes police officers tried to detain Mr. Han under a court warrant that allowed them to arrest him for organizing illegal protests in the past. Mr. Han escaped into a nearby building and later showed up at the main rally, calling on the crowd to march on the Blue House, which he called "the heart of an unjust government."

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/world/asia/antigovernment-protest-seoul-south-korea.html.

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