SEOUL: South Korean police mobilized hundreds of buses to wall off Gwanghwamun Square in the capital, Seoul, on Friday to prevent rallies on the national Hangeul Day (Korean Language) holiday amid concerns over new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) clusters emerging from demonstrations.
The government has taken a hard stance against public rallies after National Liberation Day protests by conservative Christian groups on Aug. 15 were linked to a surge in COVID-19 infections.
Health authorities said the protests triggered a second wave of infections, resulting in nearly 1,200 cases in the capital area.
Following a court decision on Thursday in support of the government’s ban on rallies, tens of thousands of police officers were deployed to stop and search pedestrians, and 57 checkpoints were set up on the main roads in central Seoul to check drivers and passengers.
“If 1,000 people from across the country gather at a rally and make close contact with one another, the spread of the infectious disease seems unavoidable,” a Seoul court ruled on Thursday against a lawsuit challenging the government’s ban on rallies in central Seoul on Hangeul Day.
On Friday, South Korea reported 54 new COVID-19 cases, including 38 local infections, and the total caseload in the country of 51 million people stood at 24,476.
Attempts by civic groups to stage massive “drive-thru” protests were also rejected by the Seoul court, which allowed only a car parade to take place with up to nine vehicles under strict quarantine measures. Only one person can be in a vehicle to demonstrate, for no more than two hours and without opening their car windows.
Antigovernment rallies have been regular since the inception of the left-leaning Moon Jae-in administration in 2017. Conservative Christian groups blame President Moon for his self-abasing style of policy toward North Korea, as well as a series of power abuse scandals involving his aides.
The “bus walls” to cordon off Gwanghwamun Square — which has long been a symbol of democracy — were used also on National Foundation Day, making international headlines last week.
Police bus blockades appeared in South Korea for the first time in 2011, when mass protests called on the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration to nullify a free trade agreement with the US.
The current bus blockades and bans on protests are sparking a public backlash, and conservative civic groups accuse the government of trying to silence criticism as they say the ban on Gwanghwamun Square is out of proportion considering that millions of people gather at subway stations in the city every day.
“On the plea of quarantine efforts, the Moon Jae-in administration recklessly blocks rallies in central Seoul, which is a breach of freedom of assembly under the Constitution,” said Choi In-sik, secretary-general of the National Federation for Liberal Democracy.
“It’s totally absurd to crack down only on rallies at the Gwanghwamun Square while some are gathering at subway stations in Seoul, and 300,000 or more citizens were bustling at the airport of Jeju Island for tourism during the recent holidays.”
Seoul residents, too, are unhappy about the blockades, with some recalling the 1970s when the country was under authoritarian rule.
“I was going to see a dentist at a hospital near the square, but police stopped me and asked where I was going,” Cha Eui-soon, 64, told Arab News.
“The police even asked me if I have the national flag of Korea in my pockets for protests. I felt like I was in the 1970s and 80s under authoritarian rule.”
Choi Sung-hwan, 26, said the measure was excessive and caused inconvenience.
“My destination is just across the road, but I have to take the long way around because of this bus wall,” he said.
“I understand the importance of efforts to combat the virus, but I think this is taking it too far.”
Experts say that while it is justified for the government to impose restrictions, the manner in which these are being carried out may create the impression that it is exploiting anti-virus efforts.
“It’s more reasonable for the government to seek ways of preserving freedom of assembly and expression under strict conditions rather than ban the rallies themselves,” Professor Lee Jong-hun, a research fellow at Myongji University in Seoul, told Arab News.
“There could be a misunderstanding that the ruling forces are making bad use of quarantine measures for political purposes.”