Conservative groups in South Korea found innovative ways of dodging a ban by the country’s left-wing government on public protests amid the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. Thousands took to the streets on Friday to mark commemorative Korean Alphabet Day, known locally as Hangul Day.
Security forces deployed hundreds of buses and around 11,000 police on Friday to cordon off Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul and survey nearby areas to prevent anti-government activists from holding large-scale rallies. As part of the strategy, the government also pledged to pursue compensation from participants if it led to a spike in cases.
Demonstrators still managed to hold small-scale protests and press conferences in downtown Seoul on Friday, where they criticized President Moon Jae-in. Some protesters also held “drive-thru” rallies in southern parts of the city, although they were subject to restrictions such as a ban on the lowering of car windows and the chanting of any slogans. According to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, 1,220 rallies were reported citywide on Friday.
Seoul right now is totally ridiculous.
Four police check points to cross the road to the bakery for lunch… and then being followed personally by one cop to my destination.@moonriver365 total overkill!
I’ve been to two Pyongyang military parades and seen nothing like this. pic.twitter.com/N4XZQKJ5Gb
— Chad O'Carroll (@chadocl) October 9, 2020
Among the groups protesting was the Sarang Jeil Church and the anti-abortion civic group Kpro-life, both of whom held press conferences in front of the Independence Gate in Seodaemun-gu to attack the government’s proposal to ease abortion restrictions until the 14th week of pregnancy. Abortion would also be legal until the 24th week of pregnancy depending on the woman’s health and socioeconomic status.
What it's like walking around downtown Seoul today. Police have set up a truly massive number of barriers and checkpoints to prevent anti-government protests. pic.twitter.com/LzqfVfjo3K
— William Gallo (@GalloVOA) October 9, 2020
The government’s approach to banning rallies has sparked criticism among the country’s conservative opposition. Representative Bae June-young of the conservative People’s Power Party described it as “unconstitutionally stubborn” for the Moon administration to “block out the voice of his opponents using the excuse of COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus].”
Ruling Democratic Party politicians defended the government’s crackdown, arguing that preventing a further spike in coronavirus cases must be their priority.
“We must not be protecting or favoring those forcibly running illegal protests,” party spokesperson Choi In-ho in an address Friday. “People will not just sit and watch if there is any political protection for those forcibly running rallies and disrupting virus control efforts.”
With a population of close to 52 million, health authorities have recorded under 25,000 cases and 428 deaths, one of the lowest per capita death rates worldwide.