South Korean labor leader leaves temple to surrender to authorities

South Korean labor leader leaves temple to surrender to authoritiesA fugitive labor leader who had taken refuge in a well-known Buddhist temple surrendered to the authorities on Thursday, ending a 24-day standoff that had set off a rare police raid within the temple complex.

The leader, Han Sang-gyun, of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, had been at the Jogye Temple in central Seoul since Nov. 14, when he helped organize a rally nearby that drew tens of thousands of people. That antigovernment demonstration, the largest since President Park Geun-hye took office in 2013, turned violent, with some protesters wielding metal pipes and the police using water cannons and tear gas. Dozens of people were injured.

Since then, the Jogye Temple, which is the headquarters of South Korea’s largest Buddhist denomination, had come to resemble an urban fortress under siege as the monks denied entry to the police, who sought to arrest Mr. Han on charges related to the Nov. 14 protest and previous ones. The police erected barricades and screened people passing through the temple gates, and rival groups of Buddhists shouted and even shoved one another as they bickered over whether their temple should give Mr. Han refuge.

On Thursday, a day after the police finally entered the temple grounds and surrounded the building where Mr. Han was staying, the labor leader turned himself in.

“I am not a murderer, an immoral criminal, a robber or a mastermind of violent riots but a laid-off worker,” Mr. Han, 53, a former auto factory worker, said during a news conference before leaving the temple to be detained. “Today, I cannot avoid being arrested, but we will continue to fight to expose the true face of this unjust government.”

During South Korea’s decades of military dictatorship, temples and churches often provided shelter and moral support for political dissidents, including student and labor activists on the run from the police. Police officers chasing them often stopped at their gates.

But in recent years, a growing number of South Koreans, including major conservative news outlets, have urged the police to disregard that tradition and apprehend such fugitives, calling them crime suspects who abuse religious facilities.

On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of police officers finally entered the temple complex, removing monks and temple officials who had formed a human chain in front of the building where Mr. Han was staying. The police surrounded the building and prepared to storm it, but the Venerable Jaseung, president of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, asked them to give the monks until noon Thursday to persuade Mr. Han to leave voluntarily.

The police were enforcing a court-issued warrant for Mr. Han’s arrest. But they also had another powerful backer: President Park, who has sounded increasingly frustrated with the National Assembly’s failure to approve a raft of labor legislation that has angered union leaders and other progressive critics, who argue that it will make it easier for big businesses to fire workers. The November protest was driven by opposition to the labor bills, among other issues.

Ms. Park, who says her labor legislation is needed to make South Korea more competitive, has also vowed to crack down on illegal, violent protests, going so far as to compare demonstrators who wore masks during the November protest to Islamic State militants. A 68-year-old farmer who was struck by water cannon at close range while protesting at the rally remains in a coma.

A smaller, peaceful demonstration calling for Ms. Park’s resignation took place in central Seoul on Saturday, with many protesters wearing masks to mock her remarks.

Mr. Han’s organization, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, is the country’s second-largest and most militant labor group. It played a crucial role in turning South Korean labor into a potent force, helping organize workers in automaking and other important industries, despite police crackdowns that were sometimes brutal.

In recent years, however, many South Koreans concerned about a slowing economy have become skeptical about militant labor activism. Some have accused the confederation of speaking mainly for powerful unions representing workers at big corporations, urging it to fight for the rights of temporary-contract “irregular” workers, whose ranks have ballooned as South Korean companies have increasingly sought such workers.

The police recently raided the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, searching for evidence that it had helped organize illegal protests.

Source: New York Times
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