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South Korea: Extremist Grandpas Attack Labor Activists

More than 3,500 people from civil rights and labor groups held a demonstration against massive layoffs by Hanjin Heavy Industries in Busan, South Korea's largest port city, on July 31, 2011. Although there were no major clashes between protesters and riot police, several minor ones erupted between the demonstrators and the Korea Parents Federation [ko], an extreme right-wing group made up exclusively of elderly Korean men.

Upon hearing the word ‘Parents Federation’ for the first time, people might imagine that this group represents parents actively engaging in school policies or in reforming the country's education system. Some might guess it to be an activist group fighting for the rights of the elderly. However, Korean Wikipedia defines [ko] it a South Korean conservative group started in 2006.

Image of Parents Federation Members Confronting Police

Parents Federation Members Confronting Police in Seoul, South Korea, Image by Twitter user @welovehani, Posted on Wiki Tree site. (CC BY 2.0)

‘Gas Tank Grandpas’

Although it is no more than six years since the group's launch, they have made numerous media appearances due to their extreme language and violent actions. Whenever there is an event promoting progressive agendas or a protest criticizing the conservatives and their policies, they appear at the scene uninvited, carrying wooden sticks and wearing bandannas.

They often wield strange weapons at protesters, such as a portable gas tank and a fire extinguisher, which has earned them the nickname, ‘Gas Tank Grandpas'. It is widely believed [ko] that they are funded by conservative groups and politicians. (Click here to see photos of the Parents Federation members in their military uniforms).

People from all over the country arrived in Busan aboard the ‘Hope Bus’ – just an ordinary bus carrying protesters. The Parents Federation members arrived on the protest scene meanwhile, riding the so-called ‘True Hope Bus'.

Parents Confronting Police in Seoul

Parents Confronting Police in Seoul, South Korea,Image by Twitter user @hwangyujeong, Posted on Wiki Tree site. (CC BY 2.0)

One net user from Wiki Tree wrote [ko] how Parents Federation disrupted the event by blocking the bridge:

지하철로 이동하여 내리자 입구가 소란하였습니다.다리목에 도로를 점거하고 경찰들의 비호(?)하에 약주 드신 어버이연합분 들이 연좌하였습니다.영도다리를 나오는 차량을 막아서신 것입니다. 이로 인해 시내에는 영도행 시내버스들이 운행중단되는 사태가 발생하였습니다. [...] 어버이연합어르신들이 도로를 점령하고 빨갱이를 잡으러 오셨다합니다. 나라가 위태로워 나서셨다고도 하시고요.

When I arrived on the protest scene by riding a subway, there was a commotion. The Parents Federation members were sat at the entrance of the bridge under the protection of police. Lots of them were already drunk. They have literally blocked all the traffic coming out of the Yongdo island via the bridge. Due to this incident, several local bus services in Busan were temporarily halted. [...] Those Parents Federation people seized the road and claimed that they came here to hunt down those Red commies [communists] jeopardizing the nation.

Respect for elders

Respect for the elderly is still a strong social norm in the country. Even under unfair circumstances, most young people refuse to fight back or sue the elderly. Twitter user @Dlsdud4001 is the victim of this social protocol the Parents Federation often takes advantage of; she tweeted [ko] that she was just an innocent passer-by when she was attacked by some of the group's members:

반대쪽에 있던 어버이연합 노인네들 오더니 신분증보여달래서 경찰도 아닌데 왜요? 했다가 뺨 두대맞음… 친구가 팔붙잡고 말렸더니 옆구리 걷어참.[...]

The Parents Federation guys form the opposite side of the road approached me and demanded me to show my identification card. I answered them ‘But you are not police. Why you ask me such thing?’ Then this old man slapped me right in the face – twice. My friend tried to stop him from hitting me by grabbing his arm. Then, this old man used his foot instead and kicked my friend.[...]
Parents Federation Members Breaking into the Hope Bus

Parents Federation Members Breaking into the Hope Bus in Busan, South Korea. Image by Twitter user @oribal69, Posted on Wiki Tree site. (CC BY 2.0)

There are numerous tweets testifying as to the Federation members’ actions during the protest in Busan. This tweet [ko], by journalist Joo Jin-woo(@jinu20), supports the allegation that they are part-time protesters, demonstrating for money rather than for their political convictions:

어버이연합 할아버지들 밤에도 선글라스와 모자를 쓰고 있습니다. 썬그라스 할아버지께 물었습니다. “밤인데 잘 보이세요?” “아니” “벗으세요?” “손자보면 쪽 팔리자나”

Those grandpas from the Korea Parents Federation always wear sunglasses and hats even at night. I asked one grandpa wearing sunglasses. “It is dark now. How do you see things with those sunglasses on?” He answered. “No. I can’t see things well.” I said. “Then why don't you take those off?” He then answered. “It would be really embarrassing if my grandchildren saw me doing this.”

As the protest, which started on the afternoon, continued till the following morning, the elderly people eventually tired. Twitterer @Gellila7 who introduces himself an office worker who loves democracy and the Republic of Korea, tweeted [ko]:

[...] 80대 후반의 노인 회원 한 분이 새벽까지 자리를 지키시다 탈진, 희망버스 참가자들이 부축해 쉴 곳을 마련하고, 물도 넘기시게 도와드린 뒤 겨우 정신을 차렸다. “나 서울로 돌아가고 싶어” 결국 그 노인 회원은 희망버스를 타고 귀경하셨다.

[...] As the protest continued till the next day morning, one elderly member in his late eighties from the Parents Federation who stayed through the night, suffered from serious dehydration. The Hope Bus members provided him a place to sit and rest and gave him drinking water. When this guy finally got back to his feet, the first thing he said was “I want to go back to Seoul”. This elderly person returned to Seoul on riding our side's bus, the Hope Bus.

The conservative side confirmed [ko] that the man returned home by riding the Hope Bus, and commented this is like a bad comedy show. Another Twitter user Dmfwl5969 posted two images revealing their actions do not match their words.

Parents Federation member holding a placard, Image by Twitter user @ (CC BY 2.0)

Parents Federation member holding a placard, Image by Twitter user @ (CC BY 2.0)

The picture above shows members holding a placard that reads “(I Accuse) Those Hope Bus Protester Thugs and Their Binge Drinking on the Roads”. However the photo below which was taken few hours later, shows the federation members drinking liquor and eating food on the protest site.

Parents Federation members drinking alcohol, Image by @Dmfwl5969

Parents Federation members drinking alcohol, Image by @Dmfwl5969

One local report analyzed [ko] that the trauma of the Korean War, extreme hunger in the past and the Red [Communism] fear continue to haunt the Parents Federation members. This report further blamed the government for not taking enough action on welfare and education for senior citizens.

Net user ID Stuck commented [ko] that these poor and uneducated elderly are vulnerable to political manipulation:

개인적으로 저 노인들은 노인복지, 평생교육, 노인참여 등과 같은 제대로 된 정책이 없어 휘둘리게 된 또다른 사회적 피해자가 아닌가 싶습니다.

I personally believe that these people are victims who are being toyed (by political power), because they don't have enough social welfare and proper education that will enhance the social participation of seniors.

No matter the reason, people are still furious with the group's violence and worry that the Federation may ruin the good word ‘parents'. Several Twitter users have launched the New Parents Federation [ko], an online community site made up of progressive parents.

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