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'War without guns': SKorea's passionate protesters

Wednesday - 9/18/2013, 9:14am  ET

In this Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013 photo, former philosophy professor and ordained pastor Park Se-hwan salutes as he sings the South Korean national anthem during an anti-Japan protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea. Park, who can be found silently standing across the street from the embassy most days, says he sees himself as a semi-permanent, one-man reminder to Japanese diplomats that South Koreans won't forget past atrocities, including the sexual enslavement of Korean women during Tokyo’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

EUN-YOUNG JEONG
Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- To convey the rage he feels over Japan's claim to a small outcropping of South Korean-controlled islets, Choi Jin-ho sliced his left pinky finger -- twice -- and hurled his own excrement at the Japanese Embassy.

He and other tenacious South Korean protesters compare themselves to warriors, and their demonstrations to a life-or-death struggle against evil.

Their causes vary, but they are known around the world for their passion, persistence and flamboyance. Their demonstrations -- spontaneous and meticulously planned, large and small -- form a near-constant backdrop for the 10 million people living in Seoul, the capital.

Here's a look at four of the country's most determined protesters:

THE FINGER-CUTTER

The first time Choi cut his pinky as a protest, doctors reattached the still-dangling digit. The second time, he severed it and mailed it to Japanese diplomats in Seoul. He later sliced off part of his ear.

"I do it because it has impact," Choi, 51, said in an interview. "I care about my body ... but I don't think that negotiation will solve this issue."

Another protest consisted of a dawn assault on the Japanese Embassy, a heavily guarded red-brick compound in downtown Seoul. He pelted it with bottles containing his own excrement. Last month he decided more was needed, so he mailed his excrement to Japanese politicians in Tokyo.

Asked why he goes to such extremes, Choi said it's the only way he can express his anger and frustration over Japan's claim to the disputed islets. He wants a high-level Japanese official to formally apologize.

The causes of South Korean activists often are rooted in the country's tumultuous history: a brutal Japanese colonization until 1945, the subsequent division of the Korean Peninsula, three years of vicious warfare and decades of military dictatorship that gave way to democracy as South Korea became one of Asia's strongest economies.

The country's power structure, however, remains dominated by a wealthy clique and its cronies. And that's one reason for the protesters' intensity, said Robert Kelly, a political scientist at Pusan National University in South Korea.

"People have grievances, and when the political structure is closed to their grievances, they go underground or they take to the streets," Kelly said. "The biggest successes in opening up this closed democracy did not come by electing people ... but by going out in the streets and rioting."

THE ARSONIST

"We are waging a war without guns," Park Chan Sung said. The right-wing protester is known as "the arsonist" among media, police and fellow protesters because he often burns North Korean flags and effigies at the up to 15 protests he organizes a month.

He's among many demonstrators -- on both sides of South Korea's bitter political divide -- who formed their public identities during the clash of pro- and anti-government forces during the dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s.

They're like actors, Park said. He studies demonstrations worldwide and measures his success by the media and government attention his protests receive. Failure is being ignored.

"A good performance is like the crown jewel of a protest," Park said in an interview in his office, surrounded by photos of him leading rallies. "People like us -- the experts -- act as spokesmen for people in our society who have difficulty raising their voices."

"FIGHT OR DIE"

One night in 2011, Kim Jin-sook took a flashlight and climbed 35 meters (115 feet) to the top of Hanjin Heavy Industries crane No. 85. For the next 308 days she refused to leave.

It had been 25 years since Hanjin fired her -- for being elected a senior member of a labor union, she contends. She said that after marches, symbolic head-shavings, sit-ins and hunger strikes by protesters failed to produce change, she decided that something drastic needed to be done.

She chose the same crane where another worker, Kim Joo-ik, protested for 129 days before committing suicide by hanging himself from the machine in 2003.

"I went up without any thought of coming back down. I'd settled my affairs," Kim Jin-sook said in a recent interview near the site of another labor protest in downtown Seoul. "I would either end everything or come down victorious."

During her months atop the crane, fellow activists brought up water, clothes and three meals a day. She used a bucket for a toilet and slept inside the crane's control cabin, which was about 1.5 meters in length.

After five months, she said, about 400 hired thugs surrounded the base of the crane, cutting off her supplies for three days. She said she fought back by emptying the contents of her toilet bucket on the thugs.

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