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Park unable to bridge country's growing divides

Labor union and civic group members clashed with police in central Seoul on Nov. 14.

SEOUL -- Tensions are rising in South Korea as the government's uncompromising stance fuels conflict in an increasingly divided society. The situation could get worse as the country braces for a highly charged general election in April.

     A battle is being waged over the Gwanghwamun Plaza, a popular gathering place in the heart of the South Korean capital. The central government wants to erect a permanent structure to fly the national flag in the plaza. But the city government, which has jurisdiction over the area, is fiercely opposed to the "totalitarian" plan.

     Some see the standoff as a proxy fight between President Park Geun-hye and Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul and a former civic activist who is regarded as one of the front-runners of opposition candidates for the next presidential election.

     President Park made her feeling toward flying the national flag apparent during a cabinet meeting. Describing her idea of patriotism, Park mentioned a scene from a movie set in 1970s South Korea in which a married couple instantly stop quarrelling and salute the national flag as soon as they hear the national anthem.

     The Ministry of Patriots' and Veterans' Affairs is determined to build the flagpole.

     "We will use whatever means available," one official said.

Turning back the clock?

In November, labor unions and citizens' groups staged large-scale protests in the area around the plaza to oppose the central government's policies on labor reform, history textbooks and other issues. Some protestors turned violent, wielding steel pipes and destroying vehicles, when they faced police barricades on the streets. A man of around 70 was knocked unconscious by a police water cannon. The tense situation continued well into the night.

     "It's like a deja vu," a man in his 50s said.

     He had returned to South Korea after a long stint overseas. The sight of protestors clashing with police, he said, brought back memories of when South Korea was under military rule.

     President Park showed no sympathy for the protestors, accusing them of breaking the law by staging violent demonstrations. She instructed the authorities to hand down harsh punishments to offenders, liking masked demonstrators to members of the Islamic State militant group.

     "They are making a mockery of public authority. It cannot be tolerated," the president said.

     The ruling Saenuri Party immediately introduced a bill in parliament to ban masked protests.

     The police launched investigations, targeting 1,500 protest participants. It set up taskforces in 16 locations across the nation, a first in the organization's history. Some of the protestors were charged with sedition, the first time such charges have been brought in 29 years.

     Today, the atmosphere in South Korea is somber.

     A university professor who wrote about the issue of comfort women under Japanese military occupation around the time of World War II was indicted without arrest in November.

Growing gaps

At the root of this tension lies the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. South Korea ranks in the bottom three among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of the poverty gap ratio -- the difference between the average income of the poor and the poverty line.

     The Park government's labor reform proposals, such as cutting red tape on employment and introducing the so-called wage peak system, have been praised by economic experts as good measures for promoting economic growth. But the opposition parties and labor unions say the proposals favor big businesses and will lead to increases in nonregular employment. The wage peak system, for instance, allows employers to reduce wages of workers nearing the retirement age in exchange for guaranteeing continued employment.

     South Korea is increasingly a nation of gaps, not only between the rich and the poor, but also between full-time employees and part-time workers, between large corporations and small businesses, and between cities and rural areas. There are also growing differences between regions, education levels and generations.

     In the political world, battles are being fought not only between conservatives and liberals, but also within the ruling party as pro- and anti-Park camps jostle for dominance.

     The situation is not much different at the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy. One faction of the party identifies closely with late President Roh Moo-hyun. But another faction, seeking to distance itself from Roh's legacy, has declared its intention to break away and create a new party.

Paralyzed by discord

Businesses and citizens have been paying the price for the government's inability to get things done.

     "What the country needs is a unifying president who can bring the citizens' minds together as one," Park said three years ago during her presidential campaign.

     The midway point in her five-year term came and went this August, but Park has shown no indication of abandoning the unyielding approach that has prevented her from becoming a unifying force.

     "Politics is about persuading opponents and striking compromises to produce agreements, but I have seen no such efforts from her," a former high-ranking South Korean government official said.

     Snow fell in Seoul early December. At the national cemetery, the grave of Park Chung-hee, a president during the era of military rule and the father of the current president, lies just several hundred meters from that of another former president, democratic activist Kim Young-sam, who died on Nov. 22.

     The cemetery overlooks the high-rise buildings of the upscale Gangnam district, a symbol of the country's rapid growth. But the economy has been losing steam for some time.

     South Korea transitioned to democracy 28 years ago. The question now is whether the current strife is the growing pains of a young democracy or a step backward toward an era of repression.

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