Authorities are staying on guard for another wave of rallies in downtown Seoul this coming weekend, amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
Far-right groups have taken to the streets on major holidays to condemn President Moon Jae-in, drawing thousands of protesters. One such event, held Aug. 15, Liberation Day, was blamed for a spike in the number of coronavirus cases.
On Saturday, when South Koreans celebrated National Foundation Day, a large number of police officers and vehicles were mobilized to block protesters from gathering. Some protesters instead staged a car parade.
Lee Nak-yon, the head of the ruling Democratic Party, said in a Facebook post Saturday that the police should work to prevent rallies planned for Hangeul Day, which falls Oct. 9. He thanked law enforcement for almost perfectly preventing illegal protests on Oct. 3.
“We are somewhat relieved at the moment, but some organizations have announced plans for more rallies on Hangeul Day,” Lee wrote, adding that preventing mass gatherings will help the country stay clear of the virus and shore up its struggling economy.
“Whatever the reason may be, illegal gatherings and deterring virus control measures are by no means acceptable. I hope the police do the same and block illegal rallies on Hangeul Day while preventing potential danger.”
According to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, 12 organizations have requested permits to hold 50 rallies throughout Seoul on Saturday.
Conservative activist group Freedom Union plans to hold a rally in the Gwanghwamun area with 4,000 participants, and another group expects to draw a total of 4,000 participants to five separate rallies the same day.
Some right-wing groups warned that they would file lawsuits against the authorities if they were barred from holding the rallies on Saturday as scheduled. They argue that the government has violated their freedom of assembly by foiling its plans for demonstrations on National Foundation Day.
Instead of conventional gatherings, two conservative groups opted for “drive-thru” protests Saturday with court approval.
The car parades, with nine vehicles to each team, were held under strict conditions considering the risk of transmitting the virus. The court allowed rallies to be held on condition that nine people, each in a separate car, demonstrate for no more than two hours without opening their car windows to chant slogans for the crowd.
The groups started in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, and were planning to continue to Gwanghwamun but were stopped by the police, who sealed off the destination area tightly so they could not enter. The police dispatched a total of 300 buses, forming a wall in the area, and operated 90 checkpoints nearby to screen vehicles and passengers.
While a number of one-person rallies took place in the area throughout the day, larger gatherings were effectively prevented. No major clashes broke out between police and protesters, who largely obeyed the rules.
Some conservative groups attempted to enter the Gwanghwamun area by force, but failed due to the police blockade. The groups instead held press briefings nearby and condemned the government for denying them the freedom to protest and wage rallies.
The government has vowed to respond sternly to mass rallies in accordance with the law after one held at the same place on Aug. 15 was blamed for causing a resurgence in coronavirus cases across the country.
Thousands of people from across the country gathered at the August rally, and hundreds of coronavirus cases were traced to the event.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org