The Mystery of South Korea’s Elderly Protesters

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Members of the Korea Parent Federation protest in 2008 against a special investigation into Samsung. (Credit: Yonhap News/via Media Today)
Elderly men protest a special investigation into Samsung in 2008. (Credit: Yonhap News/via Media Today)

South Korea has no shortage of political scandals, but this one is big and seems worth mentioning what with the dearth of reporting in the international media.

Some readers may know that a band of seniors frequently attends many demonstrations around Seoul. Sometimes they hold their own anti-communist/pro-government demonstrations. At other times they show up to counter-demonstrate against progressives or labor unions. They are hard to miss not only because they are old; they are also vocal, angry and at times violent.

It was long suspected that some unknown force was mobilizing these old men – members of an organization called the Korea Parent Federation. They are simply too well-coordinated, too numerous to be acting without financial support or external supervision. They have to eat and move from place to place. All this costs money and requires sophisticated organization.

Answers began to emerge last month from two media outlets – Sisa Journal and JTBC – followed by other left-leaning news sources.

A significant amount – perhaps up to 500 million KRW (more than 400,000 USD) – is alleged to have been wired by the Federation of Korean Industries, a private pro-business group whose members include chaebol heads, to the Korea Parent Federation via a defunct Christian charity.

Separately, the National Association of Retired Police Officers wired money in 2014 to the North Korean Refugees’ Human Rights Association of Korea, a group also known for its active involvement in street rallies for conservative causes.  

According to the Korea Parent Federation’s accounting book, obtained exclusively by Sisa Journal, the money the group received was used between April and November 2014 to hire 1,259 North Korean defectors, each of whom was paid 20,000 KRW for the day’s work. The defectors participated in rallies held in the name of the Korea Parent Federation. 40 percent of these rallies were to oppose anti-government protests in the wake of the Sewol Ferry sinking two years ago.

Chu Seon-hee, the senior Korea Parent Federation official who blew the whistle, alleged that an official at the Blue House had called him to urge “action” when it became apparent that Sisa Journal was about to go to press with the story. Chu contended that the Blue House, through the same official, had requested the organization to hold a demonstration in the aftermath of last December’s agreement between Japan and South Korea on resolving the comfort women saga. The demonstration would have been to praise the government’s signing of the agreement.

The Blue House has (naturally) denied involvement in the growing scandal and the Federation of Korean Industries has offered no comments. But the National Assembly, soon to be under opposition control in the upcoming parliamentary session, appears set to hold a full hearing. Expect fiery drama in Yeouido.

While it’s nice to see the mystery of the elderly protesters has been resolved, the scandal goes further than that in illuminating certain ongoing issues in South Korean society. First, the chaebol-state nexus so entrenched in South Korea is still alive and well. While it’s unclear for what precise reason the Federation of Korean Industries funded the Korea Parent Federation, the business community obviously has been trying to shape domestic politics for its own goals.

Second, the role of the North Korean defector community in South Korean politics deserves further scrutiny, given that the issue of North Korean human rights has become inextricably linked to conservative politics and pro-market ideology. From appearing on conservative cable news networks to denounce the North Korean regime to flying leaflets across the DMZ, defectors have performed the useful function for South Korean conservatives of highlighting the evils of the North (and so-called pro-North sympathizers in the South) and, in turn, emphasizing the goodness of the South, i.e. pro-market, anti-communist politics espoused by conservatives. Defectors’ participation in recent protests underscores their contribution to conservative politics in other ways.

(This is not to say that all defectors are politically motivated. As one North Korean defector told Korea Exposé, “They’re not doing it because it’s for a conservative cause. When a part-time job paying 10,000 KRW per hour is considered hitting the jackpot, going to a protest for a couple of hours and making 20,000 KRW is a huge temptation for defectors.”)  

Finally, the practice of  hiring “professional protesters” in South Korea demands renewed attention. While this term – jeonmun siwikkun – has been used by conservatives to discredit repeat attendees at progressive rallies as regular troublemakers, it was conservative protesters such as members of the Korea Parent Federation who have been making a living as professional agitators. And there are likely many others out there who do the same.

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