Thousands march in new anti-government rally in South Korea

SEOUL: Thousands of South Koreans, many wearing masks, marched in Seoul on Saturday against conservative President Park Geun-hye, who had compared masked protesters to terrorists after clashes with police broke out at a rally last month.

The march Saturday was organised by labour, farmer and civic groups to protest what they say are setbacks in labor conditions and personal and political freedoms under Park's government. About 14,000 people turned out for the demonstration, police said.

Police had initially placed a ban on the march for public safety reasons. But after reviewing a complaint submitted by organizers, a court threw out the ban on Thursday, saying it was an infringement on the protesters' rights to assemble.

The demonstrators carried signs and banners with slogans that included "Park Geun-hye step down" and "Stop regressive changes to labor laws." Many donned white masks that covered the upper parts of their faces. They began the march on the same streets where a demonstration three weeks earlier drew about 70,000 people, the largest rally Seoul had seen in a decade.

Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes with police during the November 14 demonstration, but there were no immediate reports of any clashes or injuries on Saturday.

The march took the protesters to an area near a hospital where Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old farmer, remained unconscious after falling down and hitting the back of his head as police doused him with water cannons during last month's protest.

Organizers had vowed to keep Saturday's rally peaceful. Opposition lawmakers, Buddhist monks and Christian priests and pastors joined the march to help prevent clashes between protesters and police.

Critics, including opposition lawmakers, have pointed to Baek's injury and the heavy use of tear gas and water cannons mixed with pepper spray to argue that police put lives at risk last month by using unreasonable force to break up the protest.

The government, meanwhile, has put the blame for the violence on groups of militant protesters, some of whom who were wearing masks, who attacked police officers and damaged and vandalized police buses, which were used as road blocks.

Justice Minister Kim Hyun-woong has said the government is ready to make "any kind of sacrifices" to eliminate violent protests, while President Park compared the masked protesters to terrorists as she called for laws banning people from covering their faces at rallies.

"Masked protests should be banned. Isn't that how the Islamic State does things now, hiding their faces?" Park said at a Cabinet meeting last month.

Labor groups have been denouncing government attempts to change labor laws to allow larger freedom for companies in laying off workers and replace their workforce with non-regular employees, which policymakers say would be critical in improving a bleak job market for young people.

Farmers have expressed fear over the expected rise in the imports of Chinese agricultural products under a free trade agreement between South Korea and China, which was recently ratified by South Korean lawmakers.