May Day in Seoul, 2013

I’m used to May Day being a tame affair, a few hundred scruffy anarchists and socialists marching along the sidewalk (because no one gives a permit for May Day, and the more direct-action minded don’t want the cops to know the route anyway). Someone steps into the street, gets tackled by the cops, a small crowd gathers shouting “Let him [usually him] go!”, someone else gets arrested, and the crowd scatters, satisfied that the workers’ cause has been commemorated for another year. I usually end up buying groceries afterwards, which, in recent years, has meant I’ve skipped the ceremonial stroll altogether and gone straight to the store. But not in Seoul: the international workers’ holiday means something here.

When I stepped off the bus near City Hall, the police had cleared out huge swathes of central streets and were whistling frantically at approaching drivers. I could hear martial music and deep bass in the distance, which I first thought was the workers on the march, and then discovered was a Christian truck parked nearby with a loudspeaker. I walked a little further and found Seoul Plaza:


This is the public sector union part of the rally. I found the Palestine solidarity table and bought a lovely lime-green Solidarity t-shirt, then I tried to make my way to the march. But I was quickly stopped by the police – they weren’t holding me back deliberately, there were just so many cops that street traffic slowed to a halt:


At first I thought these were the normal draftee teenagers given body armour and yellow reflective jackets and sent to corral demonstrations, but on closer inspection they looked older and harder, possibly because fewer of them wore glasses:


This rather poorly-taken panorama shot demonstrates the numbers of police, if not the details:


Here’s why I didn’t go too far. These are disabled worker activists being hemmed in by crowds, which are being hemmed in by police. Later the cops appeared to try to arrest one older man trying to cross the street – they clustered around him, surrounded in turn by activists and tv cameras. But it ended peacefully. Below, the couple dressed in red are information cowboys who loiter helpfully in major tourist areas:


Back across at the plaza, I toured the many tables and found the Korean outpost of Lutte Ouvriere (Workers’ Struggle, the huge orthodox Trotskyist French party), selling James P. Cannon’s The History of American Trotskyism.


Koreans have a flair for the dramatic, and demonstrations are no different. I encourage you to click through and view this picture close-up, to see the determined looks on their faces: IMG_4508

That’s because they’re singing this rousing number. I moved to the front to get the footage, and midway through I scan the crowd to give a sense of the numbers:

Later the rally culminated in the rock-musical version of The Internationale. The video is three minutes long; if you don’t have time to listen to the workers’ anthem right now, or you’d prefer to avoid the grainy-cam effects, skip ahead to the last minute, when a procession of workers holding different union flags makes its way to the front. It was genuinely stirring:

The crowd thought it was stirring too: 5000 people, pumping their fists in the air to the music. I haven’t seen such revolutionary fervour since Rage Against The Machine at Rock The Bells in 2007 – and there, Zach de la Rocha had to tell people to “put your fist up!” The Korean workers needed no such prompting.


Finally, one could argue about the exclusionary effect of alcohol at a workers’ rally, given the impact that alcohol has on destroying workers’ lives. But as the cause of, and solution to all life’s problems, I was pretty happy to see it on sale, even if it’s horrible, sub-Coors Light-quality Cass.



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