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December 14, 2005: A Swimming Lesson from the Koreans

by Becky Tarbotton

Ever since the Cancun Ministerial in when a Korean Farmer committed suicide to protest the WTO, Korean social movements have been propelled into the public eye and imagination. There was a great deal of anticipation about the involvement of the Koreans in protesting the 6th Ministerial and true to form, they arrived in Hong Kong in a mass of colour-coordination, flag waving and drumming. The delegation is a force to be reckoned with – the hundreds of farmers and workers from several different groups organized into smaller teams that are distinguished by different styles of hats and coloured headbands. But despite the variety of outfits, the message is clear and consistent: the WTO Kills Farmers and must be destroyed. They don’t mince words – these guys mean business and as the most well-organized group on the block they’re achieving a level of public exposure that is almost unheard of at mobilizations unless windows are broken.

In a brochure efficiently translated into both English and Chinese and handed out to crowds gathering around a candlelit street demonstration tonight, the Korean struggle Mission to Top the Hong Kong WTO Ministerial ( stated in no uncertain terms that the “WTO kills not only peasants but all people. Smashing the WTO into rubble is the only path to safeguarding our future and our lives”. Such strong language stands out amongst the other softer slogans that are more the norm amongst the demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong: ‘Junk the WTO’, ‘Sink the WTO’ and the very popular ‘Down Down WTO’, but the Koreans firey tone is consistent with their fierce passion and commitment demonstrated in everything they do, from sitting in regimented rows chanting and performing hand movements in perfect synchronicity, to all at once sitting down en mass in the middle of a road, to the most popular action yet: the group swim.

The opening rally of the WTO, held on December 13th ended in a cul de sac alongside Causeway Bay, in view of the Convention Center. As demonstrators filed out to the final rally, bright orange life-jackets started to appear in scattered throughout the crowd and soon excited whispers began to circulate: the Koreans were going to jump into the water. Within minutes, and before the police on land or the rafts of police and military boats guarding the 400m restricted zone around the Convention Center could react, fifty Koreans had stripped down, neatly placed their clothes into plastic bags, and with courageous yells leapt into the cold murky water together and started to swim valiantly towards the WTO ministerial. The visual was stunning and better yet, they managed to chant in time, punching the air as they swam.

The poetry of such a dramatic, but also humorous action was not lost on the crowd who looked on with a mixture of glee and disbelief – the water was cold and polluted, but what a visually stunning action. As attention focussed on the bay, another contingent of Koreans, together with some of the more intrepid protestors broke through the restricted area and started towards the Convention Center. The inevitable face-off with lines of police was tense, with the terrified looking police resorting to pepper spray, but no arrests were made. Meanwhile, the swimmers slowly began to return to shore, greeted with cheers, towels and dry clothes. If the task before social movements at this moment in history is to capture imaginations and generate broad based support for a rejection of the institution of the WTO and it’s policies, the Korean approach that mixes daring, impeccable organization, and surprise has much to teach us all. I for one, will be taking notes.

Korean Struggle Mission events:

December 15, 6pm – Korean Solidarity Night, Victoria Park

December 18th, afternoon (after the closing rally) – Korean Struggle Mission Reportback, Victoria Park