SEOUL — Like most people, Park Chan-sung goes about his daily life when North Korea conducts nuclear tests or fires up missiles: He starts making effigies of Kim Jong-il and posters with anti-North Korea slogans, calls the media and sets his props on fire.
Park is what you would call a professional protester.
The irony with Park begins with his name. “Chan-sung” in Korean means “agree,” but Park spends most of his time protesting against something. He has made it his job to represent the conservative voice of South Korea and has solidified his image as a protester who literally plays with fire.
Park is well aware that he has a reputation for taking things to the extreme. He leads a group called “The Anti-North Korea, Anti-Kim People’s Council,” which in many cases acts as an umbrella for other right-wing groups.
But the 49-year-old explains everything he does is for a reason. He believes conservative voices are underrepresented in South Korea so the best thing to do is to make noise. Park says liberals dominate the local media, and that the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration is too soft on issues.
“It’s like trying to make a flower bloom from asphalt,” he says, describing how difficult it is for conservatives to get noticed.
Unlike the activist posture Park takes on when in the streets, his speech is calm and orderly, interspersed with occasional explosions of laughter. Sitting at a coffee table covered with newspaper clippings, Park describes himself as the “commander of conservatives” in the country, a remark hard to disagree with.
For many, he is the public face of South Korean reaction to the North Korean threats. But in a country without a strong protest tradition and where the North's aggression is often seen as bluster, Park's is often a lone voice, and his protests a pretense at widespread outrage that in fact doesn't permeate most of the culture.
Park, who has bushy eyebrows and a permanent look of determination on his face, is in charge of organizing some of the most colorful and grand-scale protests staged by conservatives, who view North Korea as an absolute enemy and hail the United States as a brother nation. Park once orchestrated a protest calling for a stronger Korea-U.S. alliance that brought together more than 200,000 people.
Park doesn’t keep track of how many protests he stages but says one or two a week would be normal, and occasionally everyday for a month. He says he has burned at least 500 North Korean flags during his protests.
Park, who used to be a Christian activist, sums up his lifetime goal in a simple sentence: "To let the world know of the evil of North Korea’s military dictatorship and putting it away." The activist is fond of the term “put away,” which appears to mean, “get rid of.” When asked how this should be done, Park says without delay, “we should bomb its nuclear facilities.”
Despite his absolute faith in his cause, Park admits he finds himself in a lonely fight. He has his own protest truck, draped with an anti-North Korea banner, full of sound equipment, signs, North Korean flags and other protest items.
His colorful performances make others believe his group is well funded, but the reality is he relies on irregular donations and works with a handful of people when putting on a protest. Park is the leader in his rallies; his workload includes pasting Kim Jong-il photos on to signs and spray-painting slogans.
“Our protests are an optical illusion. People think we get money from somewhere, but I can’t exactly wave around my bank account saying I’m poor, right?” Park says with a burst of laughter.
Bringing people together for a protest is also a challenge. “You go out and try to fill a restaurant these days with one hundred people. Even if you pay for them, they won’t come. That’s what it’s like these days,” he says. Park, as well as most conservative groups, has to rely on the older, mostly retired population who experienced the Korean War and who believe the NOrth's agressive nature will never change. Massive rallies are rare these days, and the larger ones only tally up to some hundred.
The lack of money and manpower is why Park says he relies so heavily on protests, and ones that look good on camera. He would like to educate the younger generation to create a support base, but says he simply does not have the resources.
“Putting on performances is the cheapest way to do things. If the media reported on conservatives regardless, I wouldn’t have to stage protests,” Park explains. With the limitations he has, Park has been forced to study rallies and find the most effective tools.
For him, setting things on fire works best. He has studied over his numerous protesting years how to set up an area that will look good on camera. Park knows which material to use so that the fire will go up at a nice steady speed. He obsesses over the tiniest details when at a protest.
In the midst of shouting slogans will come the occasional “you over there, bring your picket down a little. You’re out of line. No, the other corner, I mean. And you, your flag is upside down.”
Park’s routine activities bring about a regular group of reporters and police forces. Under the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, regulations have become more lax on his protests, Park says, but under the previous liberal government, a number of riot police always equipped with fire extinguishers accompanied his rallies.
Camera crews and photojournalists working for the foreign media have spent years covering Park and are more than familiar with his ways. Park makes sure those covering him get their best moments.
“Okay, so I’ll tell you how I’m going to do this,” he briefs his spectators at one protest before the fireworks, “I’m going to burn the North Korean flag first, then do the image of Kim Jong-il and the posters, so you guys figure out the rest.”
Members of the foreign media believe Park has a great sense of timing. He knows when and how to put on a good protest.
“Even if it’s a really important protest, if people are just standing around, not doing anything, it doesn’t work, especially for photos or cameras,” says cameraman Kim Do-gyun, who has been with Reuters TV for 15 years. “No one measures up to Park in terms of how loud he can shout and how well he leads protesters.”
Park has paid more than $20,000 in fines for breaking protest regulations but is still determined to carry on his work.
“I am willing to die for my cause, if that’s what it takes,” he says. “At the end of the day, everyone lives for what they believe in and follow what they think is right.”
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To die with dignity in South Korea
For North Korea captives, two different stories
Creating a women-friendly Seoul