Protest allowed at Assembly gate

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Protest allowed at Assembly gate

Chung Sye-kyun, speaker of the National Assembly and former lawmaker of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, announced Thursday he would allow a “peaceful protest” to be held outside the front gate of the parliament today, stretching a domestic law that prohibits rallies within 100 meters (328 feet) of major government offices, including the National Assembly and the Blue House.

The gesture, he said, was the National Assembly’s “bounden duty” to ensure the public’s right to peaceful and free speech on an issue they have so much interest in.

It was a defeat, however, for the organizers of the antigovernment rallies that have been held in central Seoul every Saturday night since Oct. 29 to demand President Park Geun-hye resign or be impeached. They asked Chung Wednesday to allow a “public debate about state affairs” on a large, grassy square within the parliamentary compound in Yeouido-dong, western Seoul.

The square is in the vicinity of the plenary chamber in which a presidential impeachment vote will be held this afternoon.

The organizers, a coalition of various civic and labor groups, tried to overcome the legal limitation by hosting what they called a public debate in the form of a stretch of speeches, with members of the public taking turns speaking, instead of a protest rally.

Chung told reporters he decided not to open the gates out of fear that it could affect lawmakers’ ability to express their “free opinions” during the vote.

The organizers lashed out, saying Chung’s decision was “anachronistic and authoritarian.”

Even if the Assembly impeaches Park today, the organizers said they would continue the Saturday rallies until she actually leaves office.

A seventh antigovernment rally will be held in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, tomorrow from 6 p.m.

Some people fear that lawmakers from Park’s Saenuri Party might not vote in the numbers needed for her impeachment. From Wednesday, the organizers have begun a daily candlelight vigil in front of the headquarters of the ruling party in Yeouido.

Their votes will be critical to pass the impeachment, which requires at least 200 votes of the 300-member legislature.

On Thursday at 7 p.m., protesters gathered in front of the Korea Development Bank in the same Yeouido neighborhood, hoping their voices could be heard in the National Assembly.

A 73-year-old man was arrested Wednesday for allegedly setting a fire on a lawn at the National Assembly. Nobody was injured and the flame was doused in 20 minutes. The suspect said he was frustrated with the legislature’s failure to deal with the political scandal, police said.

On Thursday morning, a 27-year-old driver rammed her car into a guard post just several feet away from the main entrance to the Blue House, slightly injuring one police officer who was on traffic control.

Police downplayed media reports that the accident may have been intentional, saying the driver simply “dozed off” for a moment. A breathalyzer test showed she wasn’t drunk.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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