| Lee Gil-jun - A Riot Cop In Resistance|
While the (reactionary) media of the S.K. ruling class is still lamenting about "protest violence", the "lack of respect for the law", "police impotence" (Chosun../JoongAng Ilbo) but also some Internet sources (such as OneFreeKorea), Kim Gil-jun, a young police officer, decided to refuse to continue his service in the riot police units (a part of the S.K. army!!), i.e. he refused his duty to oppress, if "necessary" with extreme violence, the daily mass protests (since late April) against the gov't. While refusing the service as riot cop, he decided to desert, sheltering himself in a cathedral and call publicly for the dismantling of the riot police units.
7.25: Press conference with Lee Gil-jun
The Internet magazine OhmyNews published y'day following impressing contribution (incl. interview) about Lee Gil-jun's case:
'I Left the Army to Save My Conscience'
Riot police officer takes a stand over candlelight vigils
'Putting Them Down, I Could Not Bear the Guilt'
Lee Gil-jun, a riot police officer, held a press conference on Friday, declaring his decision to leave the army. Lee made his decision during a leave of absence awarded for his hard work in suppressing the candlelight vigil protests. He made up his mind to no longer be a tool of suppression.
In the early dawn of June 1, protesters were still wide-awake with their candles in front of the presidential Blue House when the riot police rewarded them with water cannons and metal clubs.
Lee stood in the front line facing the protesters that day. He and the troops forced the people up to Guanghwamun. It was then that he realized what he was doing. From that moment, he could not bear the guilt.
He explained that his decision was not for some heroic reason but for his own conscience. He showed worries of all the pain and obstacles that lay ahead of him. The press conference was to be held on the day he had to rejoin the troop at 4 p.m. on July 25. Luckily, we were able to interview him the night before at 9 p.m.
The Riot Police Officer Who Longed to Join
the Candlelight Vigil
When were you assigned as a riot police? When you volunteered for it, weren't you aware of having to go out in riots?
"I was assigned as a riot police last February. I went to university for two years and decided to take three years off doing part time in press agencies and libraries, etc. … I was not an activist of any kind but I was rather interested in social problems [and] also had some critical views on the army and the military draft. Volunteering for a riot police was a compromising point for both. I think I was a bit too vague when I thought that there were other ways to serve as a riot police without having to use force. Looking back I have been too naive. [There are two kinds of police forces; one is a crime patrol police and the other one is a riot police. Lee was a crime patrol police officer with Seoul Joonglang Police Station and would patrol around the district maintaining public security. He would also be mobilized to government departments from time to time. However, things changed as he was sent to the candle vigil protests.]
"I heard the news about the candlelight vigil protests concerning the beef issues through a friend's letter early this May. You don't get all the news when you are inside so I was not aware of the details. Hence, it is true that I assumed the protest would cool down after awhile like other protests.
"So while I was out I participated in the candlelight vigils. I was astounded to see how furious the citizens were and how irresponsible the government could be towards this fatal issue. Then I had to return to the troop and stand against these people with no choice. For that moment I thought to myself that I was only standing guard. I guess it was only my own rationalization.
"A day after I returned the whole atmosphere changed. It was May 31. We were in standby on riot buses when an order was given to us to get out of the bus. Then [they] ordered us to run somewhere with our riot suits and shields. We ran until we stopped and we stood facing the protesters with me in the front line. I recall that it was university students in the front facing us and we were at Hyojadong that moment. Others alerted each other that things might become more serious and the whole situation was just too surreal for me. But as soon as I heard the water cannons were coming, I came to my senses. Are they serious? I thought. The water cannons actually waited for two hours for the protesters to strike first."
'Strike Them, But Don't Make It Obvious'
"'Wait for them to strike first? Isn't it a rather subjective judgment?' I asked. The higher officials told us, 'For us to win this strike was to wait for the people to strike first and have a clearer reason for us to fire the water cannons.
"'Strike them. But don't make it obvious. You might get caught by all the cameras so just hit them at the shin holding the shield up a little.'
"The suppression started as the water cannons were fired. Many people bled and fell to the ground of Guanghwamun as the sun came out.
"While firing the water, we were ordered to push forward. People at the back kept on pushing so I headed forward too. As we suppressed the people up to Guanghwamun, the sun came out and it was already morning. I slopped down on the ground dehumanized, wondering what I was doing. It is true that there were some people who were a bit violent. I was hit by a soju bottle too, but I was not angry though. It is because the protesters were unarmed while I was armed with a shield. For the citizens it must have been a scary sight.
"If we did not shout loud enough and be ferocious, we were told we would be strictly disciplined afterwards. Punishment in the police community is way more violent than any other punishments in the army.
"I was told, 'Having a dominant atmosphere is what makes a rival to the protesters. And we consider defeating them only as a part of our job.' A suppression route is made only to stop serious accidents but not to protect the people's safety is what I was also told. Therefore, the country has used the many young men solely as a tool for the sake of their own power and somehow allowed them to use a more violent force every time they faced the protesters."
From a Tool of Suppression to Acting Through One's Conscience
"After the protests were put down, I realized something as I heard our head's abusive language. I realized that something was wrong, that I wasn't thinking. We all gathered to block the vigils all throughout June and we worked overnight continuously. I could stand the physical exhaustion but I couldn't bear the meaninglessness of it all.
"I realized that there's no way to justify acting in such violence towards my fellow citizens. It was difficult to see demonstrators picket in front of my riot shield. It was so painful to hear people talking down at the police and tell us to disobey our orders. Sometimes I would cry, hidden behind my helmet.
"At first, I would try to just escape the situation. I tried to break my leg, thinking that if I were injured I wouldn't be in the frontlines. I tried to figure out if I could be moved to a different branch. But nothing worked out and the month of June was too long and difficult. Luckily, I wasn't in the lines that were in charge of breaking up the protests, but in regular street guarding posts. I couldn't bear it otherwise.
"As July passed I came to realize that I have to stand up rather than just try to escape. I've lived my whole life up to now, by compromising. But this one time, I wanted to stand up. I couldn't live with myself if I had to compromise my beliefs again this time. I finally felt this good type of "self-interest" to live with dignity and courage. The candlelight vigils showed how easy it was to manipulate these young men as tools of power. I couldn't support something like that anymore."
'In Order to Break the Circle of Violence, the Riot Police System
Must Be Discontinued'
OhmyNews asked Lee if he was worried about all the criticisms that he would face following the press conference. It is predictable that people would denounce him for his "supposed" cowardice and inability to adjust to army life.
"I want to tell as many people as possible. But I'm not speaking as some ideologically motivated advocate -- I just want to tell people my story. I want to tell them that there are people like myself in the riot police. And I wanted to speak out as a whistle blower and show how violently that riot police organization operates. And I wanted to object to the government for throwing young people into that mess and forcing them to clash against the demonstrators.
"I prepared for this press conference with the support of members of the People's Solidarity for the Abolition of Riot Police System. I'm not sure exactly what I'll say. Instead of some general overblown opinions, I just want people to know that there are people like me out there. And I hope through this process that others like myself who have been worrying by themselves will be able to come forward.
"One of the reasons I came forward is because of the culture of violence in the internal organization. But I probably wouldn't have come to this decision without the candlelight vigils. I probably would have found some way to adjust. And maybe I would have tried to be better out there on the frontlines."
Did the internal organization (of the riot police) become far more violent as the candlelight protests continued?
"The internal organization's atmosphere became progressively uglier after the candlelight vigils began. The pretext was to put the men on edge and maintain discipline. Before and after the protests, we would be harassed and beaten up. The physical abuse and human rights violations escalated as the candlelight vigils continued. I think I was beaten up every day in July."
Lee was extremely hesitant about this point. He did not want another person to be harmed because of his decision to come forward. Lee attributed his experiences to "structural problems." Lee said that the current riot police system must be abolished in order to break the circle of violence. But not everything can be attributed to "structural problems." Lee hoped that fellow riot police members would be able to choose to resist instead. He wished that his decision would give them courage to do so.
'I'm Most Worried About My Parents'
Lee was asked whether he had spoken with his parents about his decision. The worry was that his decision may lead to his arrest and that was something his parents may not understand or accept.
"I will try to speak with them either tonight or tomorrow morning. They probably will not understand at all. I don't think I'll be able to change their minds. I can accept whatever difficulty or suffering that happens because it was my choice, but when I think about the suffering my parents will experience because of me, I feel much sorrow and guilt."
After the press conference, Lee will begin a talk at the Korean National Christian Congress (KNCC) at Jongro. After 8 p.m., Lee will have surpassed his leave time and the army will come to take him back. Seeing how the police have arrested average citizens, it's no surprise what they will do to get a conscripted soldier who violated his leave time and conducted a press conference. The ones in power will go through Lee Gil-jun's records in order to find something that will make him out to be a "bad guy."
Shouldn't we embrace him? This young man who cried inside his helmet wishing he could stand together with the candlelight demonstrators. This young man who said, "I don't know what to say to my parents. I know that I will go to prison, but what can I do for my parents?" This young man who has so much criticism and punishment right before his eyes.