SEOUL — Tens of thousands of activists protested in Seoul on Sunday against the Group of 20 summit to be held this week, with hundreds clashing with police who used pepper spray to disperse an angry crowd.
Labour campaigners and other activists — numbered by police at 20,000 and by organisers at 40,000 — chanted slogans and songs at Seoul Plaza outside the city hall, surrounded by thousands of riot police.
“We will never allow only 20 elite countries to decide the whole world’s future,” leaders chanted from the stage, as they also protested over the state of workers’ rights in South Korea and a proposed free trade deal with the US.
Hundreds of protesters tried to march towards the city centre against police warnings, pushing and shoving against police riot shields. Police used pepper spray to disperse the demonstrators.
Thousands of others staged a candlelight rally at Seoul Plaza, surrounded by buildings draped with huge banners heralding the November 11-12 summit — the nation’s biggest appearance on the world stage since the 1988 Olympics.
Some activists wore vests with slogans reading: “Against the G20 that hampers labour rights and creates unstable jobs” and “Against the G20 that cuts social welfare and destroys public service”.
Others held up mock traffic signs saying “Stop G20”, while campaigners distributed leaflets urging people to “rise up against neoliberalism and globalisation”.
“We will continue the struggle to raise the minimum wage, solve the youth unemployment issue,” organisers — who included the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, a major workers’ rights group — chanted from the stage.
They also protested against a sweeping free trade agreement that US President Barack Obama wants his country and South Korea to sign before next week’s summit, the Yonhap news agency reported.
More than 8,000 police were deployed around the city centre, the city police spokesman told AFP, adding that the force had expected violence.
Seoul will host world leaders including US President Barack Obama for the G20 gathering from November 11-12.
The country’s police chief Cho Hyun-Oh said last month that police would be on high alert for demonstrators rallying around the summit venue, cautioning that South Korean protests “tend to be very violent and intense”.
In addition to some 50,000 police officers, tens of thousands of troops will be deployed to key public facilities and mountain areas overlooking the summit venue, while naval forces and the coastguard will monitor vessels at sea.
Cho also raised the possibility that North Korea might try to disrupt the summit, though South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak dismissed that possibility, saying he was “confident in the safety and success of the Seoul summit”.
Police have already drawn up strict security measures, creating a special unit to protect the G20 leaders and surrounding the venue with security fences over two metres (seven feet) high.
A special law came into force this month giving police greater power to break up street rallies and allowing a military presence in public places.