[Viewpoint] The garden is a barometer of civilityI looked around the Gwanghwamun Plaza on the main street in front of City Hall in the heart of Seoul one sunny afternoon. Perhaps it was because of all the people who were crowded in, but it seemed much smaller than it looked from the bus on my way to work.
A fountain was like a flower in full bloom in front of and behind the prominent statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin. Several dozen kids enjoyed the fountain by running about with abandon in soaked clothes. Naturally, mothers were busy taking their photos.
When I stepped onto Gwanghwamun, a flower garden called a “flower carpet” by the Seoul Metropolitan City captured my eye. It was 162 meters (531 feet) in length and 17.5 meters across and held 224,537 flowers. The number isn’t random. Instead, it symbolizes the number of days from October 28, 1394, when Hanyang, Seoul’s previous name, was declared the new capital, to August 1 of this year. It is said to have been designed by applying the exquisite beauty of traditional painting.
Maybe so, but I have to admit that escaped me, maybe because painting is a little outside of my field. However, people seemed to enjoy the garden, as at long last there was one in the downtown area. Some have taken to calling the square “Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon’s garden.”
Regardless, citizens seemed happy enough as they snapped photos of one another all over the place.
But then, of course, the inevitable happened. Three days after the square was opened, it witnessed its first demonstration. It was in the form of a press conference by Seoul City council members and civic groups urging the repeal of a draft municipal ordinance on the Gwanghwamun Plaza.
Ten people were arrested for staging an illegal demonstration. “Freedom of expression,” which has become a controversial issue at the neighboring Seoul Square, now has come to Gwanghwamun Plaza.
Without even seeing the municipal ordinance, it’s clear that Gwanghwamun Plaza isn’t a proper venue for demonstrations.
The only place where a large crowd could gather at the plaza is a relatively small area from the entrance near Haechi Madang to the statue of King Sejong the Great of Joseon.
If many people gathered there, it would damage the flower garden. Also, a demonstration would definitely end up as an illegal occupation of the busiest boulevards of Sejongno, not to mention that the Embassy of the United States is located right next to the Plaza.
As such, demonstrations at the Plaza fall under provisions regarding the Act on Assembly and Demonstration which restricts protests within 100 meters of a diplomatic mission.
However, why was an illegal demonstration urging the government to allow freedom of demonstration held there at all?
I think it reflects the overly politicized features of our society. Let’s get to the heart of the subject. It would be even better for us to amend the ordinance. If impossible, we should take the lead in raising the controversial issues of freedom of expression.
The fact that a political group made the first record of an illegal demonstration in the Gwanghwamun Plaza represents a sub-standard level of our society.
Last Sunday morning, an accident occurred in which a taxi collided with a passenger car and ended up by the Haechi statute, 20 meters inside the flower carpet. Fortunately, no one was injured.
But that was more due to luck than anything else. Kids are highly likely to face the risk of having a traffic accident due to a low road threshold between the plaza and roadway.
However, I haven’t heard any news that groups for child protection or for traffic safety are staging protests, despite the theory that demonstrations must be held where they stand in bold relief to the general public.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government must have analyzed the possibility of demonstrations before opening the square.
I think that the formation of the flower carpet was meant to prevent these protests from happening.
When the Weimar Republic of Germany was plunged into confusion, German communist party demonstrators were said to have taken a detour around grass when they saw the sign saying “Keep off the grass.”
The government might believe that Korean demonstrators will not trample down beautiful flowers for no good reason.
Willingly or not, the flower carpet of the Gwanghwamun Plaza will be the barometer measuring our awareness of public order and the level of the development of our people.
It might not be a flower garden that deserves everyone’s admiration. However, it was created with great care. Whether it will be mercilessly trampled down on occasion, as with the Seoul Square’s grass, or should it be well preserved for a long time, the plaza’s fate will depend on our civility.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun