A reincarnated crackdownA rare lockout was executed in downtown Seoul to prevent antigovernment rallies on Saturday. Over 10,000 police officers and hundreds of vehicles were mobilized to seal off Gwanghwamun Plaza that leads up to the presidential office. Police barricades were installed on street corners. Subways did not stop at Gwanghwamun or City Hall. The measures were administered to prevent rallies and the potential spread of Covid-19.
Police checked every car entering downtown. They examined inside the cars to see if there were any flags or banners. Such vehicle screening had been rare even in the 1980s when democracy movements against the military regime peaked. Even generals-turned-presidents Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo-hwan did not block citizens from entering downtown to help prevent rallies that were banned.
The government reasoned that the right to assembly had to be restricted to some extent to protect against Covid-19. Infection cases surged after antigovernment rallies were held on the Liberation Day last month.
All the people must cooperate to contain the virus spread. It is highly dangerous for large groups to congregate to chant and shout. Still, mobilizing law enforcement forces to prohibit citizen mobility cannot be right. No democratic country restricts basic rights to travel, move around or assemble.
Korea’s quarantine campaign that won praise from the world owes much to the active participation of citizens who condoned the exposure of their privacy and adherence to restrictive measures for greater public safety. Korea has contained the virus spread relatively well, but at the expense of individual rights. Western societies could not employ such drastic measures as they respect basic rights above all.
People now refer to the police vehicle barricade around Gwanghwamun as “The Great Moon Jae-in Wall.” Many of the ruling forces were once student activists who fought for civilian rights against the authoritarian military regime. But they are using similar dictatorial tricks. It is no wonder The Economist sneered, “South Korea’s liberal rulers unleash their inner authoritarians.”