Dump double standardsA rally was held last Friday at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul to demand the release of Lee Seok-ki — a former lawmaker of the now-defunct leftist United Progressive Party (UPP) — who is in jail for instigating an armed rebellion against the government. The rally has raised questions about the guidelines of the Seoul city government in managing the iconic public square.
Organizers of the rally told the police that it was designed for the release of “prisoners of conscience” ahead of the Aug. 15 Liberation Day. The rally is estimated to have drawn as many as 20,000 people and clearly had a political purpose. It called for a special pardon for Lee whose nine-year-sentence for violating the National Security Law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015. Former UPP lawmaker and Minjung Party chief Lee Sang-gyu and Korean Confederation of Trade Unions chairman Kim Myeong-hwan both called for his release, and a letter Lee wrote from prison was read aloud.
Under the city ordinances, the Seoul mayor has the duty to manage Gwanghwamun Square as a leisure and cultural space for Seoul citizens. The city administration said that it had permitted the assembly because the organizer touted a concert to promote human rights and peace and denied any knowledge about the hidden aim to campaign for Lee’s release.
The organizer has been publicizing the event since May. The city has neglected its role by not knowing the real motive — or violated rules by granting permission for the rally despite its political purpose. The city administration must launch an internal investigation on whether the organizer falsely reported the purpose of the event.
Democracy allows for the freedom of assembly. But the use of a public space as big and symbolic as Gwanghwamun Square must be based on reasonable grounds and principles. Few in Seoul would have approved of the event’s purpose. The city government has been ambiguous in its approval process. The mayor shot down the opposition Liberty Korea Party’s request for an anti-government rally in May. But an event to commemorate the 10th memorial service for ex-president Roh Moo-hyun was granted despite the list of guests who would have made provocative political comments.
The city government engaged in a tense standoff with the far-right Our Republican Party for its drawn-out tent protest in the square. It forced the campers out several times and threatened legal action to kick them out permanently. Mayor Park Won-soon must apply the same standards to liberal forces when they want to use the public space for political purposes. The city loses neutrality and fairness if it takes actions depending on whether organizers share the same ideologies as Mayor Park. There have been few protests during the weekends at Gwanghwamun Square and Seoul City Plaza under Park’s rule. The people have the right to have a peaceful plaza.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 23, Page 30