Conservative protesters stay away as police close Gwanghwamun
Health officials had been worried that conservative activists might show up in huge mobs in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Saturday — Korea’s Foundation Day — like they did on Aug. 15, when the country celebrated Liberation Day. Both were national holidays.
More than 600 coronavirus patients were linked to the Aug. 15 rally, which was estimated to have included nearly 20,000 people, making it one of the largest clusters Korea has seen during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the Chuseok holidays, daily coronavirus cases in the country mostly hovered around 60 to 80 cases.
Over 100 conservative civic groups had planned to take to the streets in downtown Seoul in or near Gwanghwamun last Saturday, but protest permits were all rejected by police, which took the cue from the Seoul Metropolitan Government by banning any rallies in the city involving 10 people or more through Oct. 11 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Seoul government also designated no-rally zones in many parts of the downtown Seoul area, where even rallies involving fewer than 10 people were prohibited.
Several rally organizers tried to work around the restriction by using their cars and protesting from the vehicles, dubbed “car rallies,” but even that was prohibited by police, who warned that participants could have their driver’s licenses suspended or revoked.
With some civic groups still refusing to back down, the police completely cordoned off Gwanghwamun Square with police buses and steel fences last Saturday to block anyone from passing by, installed 90 checkpoints at entries to Seoul to screen vehicles, and deployed nearly 800 police officers across the capital to prevent any large political masses.
From 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., even subways didn’t stop at stations near Gwanghwamun Square, measures that affected Gwanghwamun Station on line No. 5, City Hall Station on lines No. 1 and 2 and Gyeongbokgung Station on line No. 3.
Several protesters who tried to sneak by police to enter Gwanghwamun Square were stopped, and some groups held small press conferences in the vicinity with no more than nine people. A few demonstrators resorted to holding pickets a few yards away in one-person demonstrations.
Only two conservative groups were allowed to hold car rallies in Seoul on Saturday after the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in their favor, albeit under strict restrictions: Only nine cars were allowed to join, with one person in each vehicle; drivers couldn’t roll down their windows to chant; they all had to follow traffic rules and stick to their planned route; and submit a legal document promising they would abide by the rules.
One group passed by the residences of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and current Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, who are each involved in corruption scandals involving their children.
Police said in a statement that no serious clashes occurred between police and protesters.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) praised police efforts in a statement, saying it was a necessary step to protect the general public from the coronavirus. The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) slammed the Moon administration, calling it a “dictatorship.”
Conservative groups have warned they would take to the streets in downtown Seoul this Friday and Saturday, raising tensions with police all over again.
No serious surge in daily Covid-19 cases was reported over Chuseok, though the figures did rise compared to right before the holiday, which kicked off Wednesday.
There were 77 new cases Wednesday, 63 Thursday, 75 Friday and 64 Saturday. As of Saturday at midnight, Korea had counted 421 deaths, 21,845 recovered patients and 24,091 coronavirus cases.
Central health authorities Saturday said they have detected two Covid-19 cases so far from people who have traveled during the holidays, both to Busan.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]