Conflict emerges over Seoul Plaza

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Conflict emerges over Seoul Plaza


Seoul Plaza is at the center of controversy over who has the right to determine how the public space is used. [JoongAng Ilbo]

The black shirt-clad sextet Brass Tong stands in the spotlight, their jazzy music wafting across the green lawn at Seoul Plaza, downtown Seoul, on an evening last week.

A few groups of people, mostly salaried workers juggling briefcases and newspapers, gazed at the musicians with their golden instruments, tapped their feet to the music or settled on the lawn to enjoy the performance, which was part of a daily cultural event sponsored by the city of Seoul and running through Oct. 10.

The scene is idyllic; the music and the relaxed nature of the audience are a picture of calm.

But all is not peaceful on this grassy oval in front of Seoul City Hall, which has been blocked by police buses guarding against the demonstrations that have grown in number recently.

The authorities are anxiously looking to avoid a repetition of last year’s massive street protests that brought the country to a standstill. The demonstrations, a response to the decision to resume U.S. beef imports, quickly snowballed into a series of massive anti-government rallies.

Now, the plaza is emerging at the center of a conflict between the city government and civic groups over the plaza’s use.

Campaigning for change

Four progressive civic organizations, including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and four political parties, including the opposition Democratic Party and Democratic Labor Party, launched a campaign earlier this month to change the city ordinance on the use of Seoul Plaza.

“Seoul Plaza is an iconic place symbolizing Korean democracy. The owners of Seoul Plaza are the citizens of Seoul, not the city,” the alliance said in a press conference held in front of the plaza on June 8.


People gather in Seoul Plaza, central Seoul, for a concert that is part of the Hi Seoul Festival in May.

Some argue that the groups want to use the plaza as a rallying point, and they don’t seem to remember that the ordinance governing the use of the plaza was passed by the Seoul Metropolitan Council, when the Democratic Party was the ruling party.

The groups want the city to permit free public use of the space, saying that by blocking the plaza, the government is infringing on the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the Constitution.

In the proposal submitted to Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon on June 10, the groups presented a list of changes to the plaza ordinance, including the creation of a citizens’ committee that would have jurisdiction over the plaza. To support their proposal, the groups will also initiate a petition and signature collection drive before the end of the week.

The PSPD’s Lee Jae-keun says it will take about two weeks for the city to process the proposal.

The groups also want to change the approval system for use of the plaza. The current law states that people wanting to use a public space must gain approval from the city government after submitting an application for its use. The groups want a registration system in which people would notify the police before using a public space, but would not have to gain government approval.

Seeds of conflict

Questions about who has the right to use Seoul Plaza, and public space in general, began to surface around last year’s candlelight demonstrations against resumption of U.S. beef imports, when the plaza was filled with protesters for more than 100 days.

The debate resurfaced following the suicide of former President Roh Moo-hyun, who was being investigated for involvement in a bribery scandal when he jumped from a cliff in Bongha Village, South Gyeongsang, on May 23.

After Roh’s death, mourners waited in long lines for days to pay tribute to the late former president, and 30 civic organizations and four major religious groups formed a committee that applied for permission to use the plaza for an event commemorating the late former president on May 27, but the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Public Administration and Security turned them down.


Civic groups gather in the plaza for the funeral of former President Roh Moo-hyun on May 29. [JoongAng Ilbo]

Meanwhile, based on the government’s concerns that mourners upset about Roh’s death could become violent, Seoul Plaza was blocked by 35 police buses and riot police units to prevent people from entering to create disruptions.

“We provided several assurances that we would pay tribute to the late president in a peaceful way, but our proposal was not accepted,” said Oh Gwang-jin, who leads the civic group Civic Society Organizations Network.

Civic groups were also prevented from gathering in the plaza to commemorate the June 10, 1987 pro-democracy movement.

According to the Seoul city government’s official Web site, however, the city takes pride in Seoul Plaza’s role in modern Korean history: “Seoul Plaza is the place where important historical events such as the March 1 Independence Movement from Japanese colonial rule and the June 10 pro-democracy movement took place. The plaza has functioned as a meaningful place for citizens.”

Ironically, however, the city of Seoul no longer allows rallies or gatherings to be organized around these events.

“The plaza should be used for the convenience and welfare of Seoul citizens. That’s why only cultural events are allowed,” said Lee Chang-woo, an official with the Seoul city government who is in charge of managing the plaza.


Seoul has increasingly come under fire for its stance, with citizens and civic groups blaming the city for ignoring Koreans’ constitutional right to stage rallies or hold gatherings.

Adding fuel to the fire, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on May 20 that it would no longer allow large public gatherings in the downtown area.

Government concerns

Meanwhile, the Lee administration is treading carefully as it is still trying to recover from the shockwave that forced it into a corner during last year’s candlelight demonstrations. And it’s not only the government that is mindful of the events of the past but also those citizens who lost valuable business at the time and are starting to see similar losses now.

Small shop and restaurant owners in the area say they lost valuable business due to the extended demonstrations, not to mention their fear of getting pulled into a street scuffle, and many were forced to close.

An official with the Plaza Hotel towering over the plaza said that sales of food and beverages are usually down during protest periods and that reservations for its restaurants were low last year.

The official said that the Seoul city government alerts the hotel prior to any protests and then the hotel circulates notices in English, Japanese and Korean to its customers.

When the protests ended last year, 115 small shop owners filed a lawsuit amounting to a staggering 1.7 billion won against the protester.


The National Policy Agency estimates that damages caused during the demonstrations stands at 517.9 million won.

“We claimed damages to the umbrella organization which led the anti-mad cow disease rallies. The damage includes medical fees and repair costs for about 170 police buses and other police equipment,” said Kim Man-joong, a police lieutenant from the NPA.

Difference of opinion

Public opinion about who has the right to govern public space has so far been mixed.

“The right to have rallies and gatherings is stated in the Constitution of Korea and it is also a basic principle of democracy,” said Youm Hyung-kuk, a lawyer with the nonprofit public interest law firm Gong-Gam.

“In addition, rallies are the only way for minorities to make their voices heard. It goes against basic human rights to use excessive means to suppress rallies,” Youm added.

When Oh Dong-suk, a law professor from Ajou University, was asked what he thought about the city’s right to govern the use of the plaza versus citizens’ right to hold rallies there, he said, “The Constitution of Korea is superior to city ordinances. In that sense, citizens have a right to access the plaza. All the city of Seoul should do is manage the plaza, not block people from holding activities there.”

“If the ordinance clashes with the Constitution, I think the Seoul Metropolitan Council should bring its ordinance in line with the superior law,” Oh added.

There are others who are say that the plaza is for everyone and not just those who want to hold demonstrations, citing concerns about citizen safety and disruptions of business and traffic.

“We should take many things into consideration when we look at this issue, such as the interests of people who run businesses near the plaza and ordinary citizens who have difficulty commuting when Seoul Plaza is used as a venue for rallies,” said Lee Hun, a lawyer who leads a group called the Gathering of Lawyers for Citizens in Seoul. “And I can’t understand why we need a citizens’ committee. Seoul citizens have already selected people to represent them such as the Seoul mayor and others,” Lee said.

Lim Joon-tae, a professor from Dongguk University’s Department of Police Administration, says citizens should respect the city’s ownership of Seoul Plaza.

“As long as the rallies are not illegal or violent, they should be respected. But I think Seoul city government has the right to administer Seoul Plaza,” said Lim.

Oh from Ajou University, however, raised questions about the frequent characterization of recent rallies as “violent.”

“Seoul city government and some experts say people should be prevented from holding rallies in Seoul Plaza because the rallies might become violent, but such remarks are based on the assumption [that they will].”

Korea’s short history with plazas

President Lee Myung-bak, known as the “bulldozer” was the man who created the plaza, a move he may now regret.

Seoul Plaza opened on May 1, 2004, when President Lee was serving as the mayor of Seoul. He came into office pledging, among other things, to create a public plaza where Koreans could come together as they had during the 2002 World Cup.

The World Cup captivated Koreans, who filled the streets of downtown Seoul wearing red T-shirts in support of the national football team.

Since then, the plaza has been used for diverse events - mostly public events planned and organized by the city.

But the idea of a plaza is something of a foreign concept in Korea. “Plazas are not traditionally part of Korean villages,” said Park Seung-kyu, author of “Everyday Geography” and a professor at Chuncheon National University of Education. “Korea has a short history with plazas.”

Indeed, there are only two plazas in Seoul. The first is Seoul Plaza and the second is Cheonggye Plaza, which opened in October 2005. A third plaza, Gwanghwamun Plaza, is slated to open in August and will be the largest of the three.

“Plazas have distorted meanings in Korea. Seoul Plaza was created by Lee Myung-bak as part of his effort to exhibit his achievements as mayor.

“Due to different interpretations over how the plaza should be used, civic groups and the city are confronting one another over it,” Park added.

Reality check

Despite the efforts of 30 civic groups and four religious groups to change city ordinances, experts say they might have a long way to go before they will see any movement on the issue.

“Since the Grand National Party has a majority of seats on the Seoul Metropolitan Council, it won’t be easy for the group to bring any immediate changes to the ordinance,” said Youm from Gong-Gam.

The ruling GNP holds 96 seats on the council, while the opposition Democratic and Democratic Labor parties have five and one, respectively.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as preparations for Gwanghwamun Plaza near completion and nerves are tight in anticipation of possible conflicts between the city government and progress civic groups over Gwanghwamun Plaza.

Park, author of Everyday Geography, says he thinks the controversy over Seoul Plaza is likely to be repeated when Gwanghwamun Plaza opens to the public in August.

By Sung So-young, Brian Lee []
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