South Korea’s prime minister on Wednesday warned dissidents they face a “stern” response from authorities should they move forward with plans to stage massive anti-government rallies next month in the nation’s capital, Seoul.
The rallies would defy a city-wide ban on large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Seoul police, conservative activist groups critical of President Moon Jae-in’s leftist administration “have applied to hold 435 rallies in central Seoul on the occasion of National Foundation Day,” a public holiday on October 3 celebrating the founding of the Korean people, the Korea Times reported.
Left-wing Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party, urged conservative civic groups to withdraw their plans to gather early next month during a regular coronavirus response meeting on Wednesday.
“I request that the concerned groups roll back their rally plans. It is hard to understand … some organizations are sticking to plans to hold rallies on National Foundation Day (October 3) even though the government is paying high prices for the [coronavirus] resurgence triggered by the August 15 Liberation Day rallies,” the prime minister said, as quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Chung referred to anti-government rallies staged in Seoul last month, attended by thousands. Similar to those planned for October 3, the demonstrations were organized by conservative action groups to express their opposition to the ruling leftist government. Authorities blamed the gatherings for a spike in the number of new coronavirus cases in Seoul, resulting in South Korea’s worst coronavirus outbreak in months. On Tuesday, state health authorities said they had traced over 580 coronavirus cases to the August 15 rallies.
In response to the surge in new coronavirus cases, Seoul authorities reimposed social distancing measures and restrictions on movement in the capital in an effort to contain the fresh outbreak. This included a reinforced ban on large gatherings. A limited ban on gatherings was already in place at the time of the August 15 rallies, but participants defied the mandate.
Despite the gathering ban, Seoul police say they have already received hundreds of applications for October rallies. The municipal government says that it expects about 400,000 people to participate in the demonstrations. In anticipation of the unsanctioned rallies, the Seoul metropolitan government on Monday extended its ban on gatherings of ten or more people to midnight on October 11.
“If the (planned) rallies are pushed ahead, the government will respond sternly in accordance with law and regulations in order to protect the lives and safety of people,” Prime Minister Chung cautioned.
South Korean Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip seconded Chung’s warning to the right-wing groups at a news conference this week.
“Should they press ahead with the rallies, the government will quickly take measures to disperse them and criminally investigate those who commit illegal acts,” Kim said, as quoted by the Korea Times.
Some of the conservative civic groups organizing rallies on October 3 held a press conference on Wednesday in Seoul to announce their plans to demonstrate, according to the newspaper.
“The government should guarantee the freedom of assembly and association mandated in the Constitution,” they asserted while speaking to reporters outside of the Jongno Police Station on Wednesday afternoon.
The first half of October includes five national South Korean holidays. The government expects that the combination of banned gatherings and holidays will pose “the biggest challenge to the nationwide efforts to curb COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] cases,” according to the report.