Gwanghwamun Square returns to the past

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Gwanghwamun Square returns to the past

The Gwanghwamun Square has been occupied by protesters only 10 days after it was renovated into a “plaza like a park with many trees and shade.” Members of a conservative civic group led by Rev. Jeon Kwang-hoon started moving into the southern section of the square after staging a massive rally in front of the Dongwha Duty-Free Shop nearby. Seoul City had pointed out such flexible patterns of demonstration as a major problem before the reopening of the square on August 6. But the problem has surfaced again.

The participants in the rally gathered in a space not allowed for civilian participation events. Earlier, the city government designated a 2,783 square meters (30,000 square feet) area by the Statue of King Sejong and another area with similar size nearby as the place for citizen cultural activities. But the protesters gathered around the Statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin — also off limits to demonstrators — and waved flags to criticize the past liberal administration. The police ordered them to disband immediately, but to no avail. The protesters occupying the roads near them caused a serious traffic jam. Despite the facelift of the square for Seoul residents, it helplessly went back to the days of large-scale rallies.

The rebirth of the Gwanghwamun Square — two times bigger than in the past and 5,000 trees planted to turn it into a green space — was possible thanks to a bipartisan consensus in the National Assembly. It was former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon that promised to renew the square with a more than 80 billion won ($61 million). Though his idea faced a crisis after his sudden death, his deputy took the baton and carried out the renovation. After Oh Se-hoon, a conservative, won a mayoral by-election, the project hit a snag again. But it was too late to stop the renovation after lots of money was already spent.

The renewal project was initiated by the Democratic Party (DP) and completed by the governing People Power Party (PPP). It was a rare collaborative work between the two rivaling parties to return the heart of Seoul to 10 million citizens to offer them more space for rest.

But the square could return to a venue for heated rallies and demonstrations of the past. The response by the city and the police is disappointing. The chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said he was looking into the rally by the conservative civic group. But the police did not deal with it effectively on the spot. The city plans to apply tougher standards when citizens submit applications for the use of the square for various purposes, including charging them up to 13 won per square meter for an hour.

But such rules will be of no use if demonstrators move into other areas. The city government and police must find effective ways to prevent them from abusing the square.
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