It is a typical scene in street demonstrations. Lawmakers and politicians, usually from the opposition, join the front rows of sit-in rallies or street marches. More often than not, they engage in illegal activities, including violating police lines or physically obstructing police officers.
Out of respect for the “people’s representatives,” or more realistically, out of fear of political reprisals, police usually exclude lawmakers when they take illegal demonstrators into custody.
But rewind to last October: Korean newspapers published photos of a demonstration in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. They included eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives being handcuffed by police for engaging in illegal activities.
Many Koreans remember the photos partly because they included Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York), who is well known here because he is a Korean War veteran and one of the strongest supporters of South Korea in the U.S. Congress. But those who saw the 83-year-old, 22-term U.S. Congressman being taken by police officers, with his hands cuffed behind his back, were more impressed by the enforcement of the law.
Now it seems that we in Korea will be able to witness similar scenes. The national police chief, Lee Sung-han, made it clear early this week that there would be no exceptions in taking demonstrators violating the law into custody. “We will consider taking lawmakers into custody if they commit illegal activities,” he said.
As expected, some without sound judgment are creating an uproar. They accuse police of attempting to suppress the freedom of assembly. They also argue that the police chief is attempting to infringe on lawmakers’ rights and duties. They allege that lawmakers are supposed to participate in mass demonstrations to get to know public sentiment and monitor possible violations by authorities of people’s basic rights.
Lee could tell them he is not asking them to stay away from demonstrations but to refrain from illegal activities. Lee should stand firm with his endeavor to make Korea a society that upholds fair law enforcement. The rule of law cannot be established if we allow lawmakers to avoid punishment when they break what they make.