Amid mounting tensions ahead of the upcoming Dec. 5 antigovernment rally, the police renewed its determination to take heavy-handed measures against “violent” demonstrators, as their stepped-up warning continued to prompt a public backlash.
The police announced a new plan on Monday in a press statement to prevent what it labeled illegal and violent protests. It said it would spray paint into the crowd at the upcoming rallies to better distinguish protestors committing violence and arrest them on the spot while setting up roadblocks with police buses.
The move came two days after the police banned the forthcoming antigovernment demonstration planned in Seoul this weekend and a day after the rally organizers ― Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and Korean Peasants League ― pledged to go ahead with the protest despite the ban.
The police did not allow the organizers to hold the protest near City Hall, citing violence that could possibly break out during the event. But the nation’s second-largest umbrella labor union and farmers’ group lashed out at the decision, accusing the government of denying constitutional rights and slipping back into past authoritarian rule.
Under the Constitution, the freedom of expression and rights to hold assemblies are stipulated as basic rights for citizens, with authorities required to grant the permit for a “lawful” protest upon declaration. But a lower law stipulates that the police can ban any rally that could “clearly disrupt public order and inflict damage upon the people via violence, threat and arson.”
But the police’s heavy-handed measures, coupled with President Park Geun-hye’s pointed remark against masked protesters last week, appeared to be backfiring, with netizens taking to social media to lampoon her remarks and graffiti satirizing the president ― a daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee ― popping up across the nation.
Shortly after her calls for a ban on mask-wearing protestors, netizens posted comments like “Let’s hold a dance party wearing masks in the upcoming rally. It only costs 8,400 won per mask!”
President Park Geun-hye led the campaign against what she denounced as illegal, violent rallies by calling for a ban on masked protests and likening the masked participants to Islamic State group terrorists.
A well-known novelist Lee We-soo said in his tweet, “If the bill barring protestors from wearing masks passes, will the Mask King also be abolished?” he said, referring to the popular TV singing competition in which professional singers stage a performance while wearing masks to hide their identity.
On Monday, graffiti of a masked person appeared on the walls in various locations in western Seoul near Hongik University and Sinchon Station. In the painting, the woman covers her whole face with a mask, with the number 51.6 percent underneath her. The graffiti appears to depict President Park as she earned 51.6 percent of the votes in the 2012 presidential election.
Progressive Seoul City Mayor Park Won-soon also joined the fray, saying the government blocking rallies by police vehicles or banning use of masks posed questions over the country’s democracy level.
“The most basic part of democracy is the freedom to express and think. And only through that can an individual’s creativity shine,” Park said in a speech at Seoul National University. “It is only right that the central government take on a more open approach, and rather than banning them through oppression, seek the reason and fix the cause of why these people are rallying and protesting.”
In a survey conducted by pollster Realmeter, 54.6 percent of the respondents were against the bill barring protestors from covering their faces with masks, with 40.8 percent supporting such a policy. About 5 percent of them did not have clear opinions.
The Dec. 5 rally followed a mass protest held on Nov. 14, the largest in more than seven years, by labor, civic and farmers’ groups. Some 70,000 people took to the street to oppose the government’s push to reintroduce state-issued textbooks, open agricultural markets and reform the labor sector.
The demonstration spiraled into violence, with police firing tear gas and water cannons to stop protestors from marching toward the presidential office, which divided the nation over who was to blame for the violent protests.
The police directly aiming a water cannon at a protestor trying to pull down police bus barricades left Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old farmer, to remain unconscious as of Monday. On the other hand, the police claimed that the violence during the rally incurred 389 million won ($340,320) worth of damage to police equipment and injured 113 officers.
Since the protest, the police vowed zero tolerance for any violence committed during rallies, raiding the Nov. 14 protest organizers’ offices and bringing in 401 people for questioning on charges of leading what it called illegal rallies.
Following the president’s criticisms against masked protesters, Rep. Jung Gap-yoon of the ruling Saenuri Party scrambled to table a bill to legalize the ban on protestors wearing masks during demonstrations.
The bill was presented as protestors wearing masks make it difficult for the police to check their identities and collect evidence to arrest them, the lawmaker said.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com)