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[News Focus] Does government have double standards on virus?

Authorities were much stricter toward those with anti-government views, opposition argues

Labor activists from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions chant while participating in a rally at Yeouido, western Seoul, on Saturday. (Yonhap)
Labor activists from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions chant while participating in a rally at Yeouido, western Seoul, on Saturday. (Yonhap)
Criticism is mounting over the government’s response to labor rallies held in Seoul and other major cities over the weekend, with some accusing the authorities of applying double standards in regulating rallies depending on their political inclinations.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the two major umbrella labor groups in the country, and its affiliated groups held 31 rallies with 99 participants each in 61 locations throughout Seoul, while hosting 13 additional demonstrations in other parts of the country.

The labor group said around 12,700 people joined its nationwide rallies.

Although warnings were issued by President Moon Jae-in and other officials urging the activists to forgo their plans and call off the rallies, the police did not employ bus barricades to block protesters as they had in October, when conservative groups planned to gather.

Criticism surfaced from the opposition party and conservative groups, accusing the authorities of failing to be impartial in responding to liberal groups’ rallies in the pandemic situation.

The workers’ demonstration took place when the number of new COVID-19 cases exceeded 200 for the first time in 73 days in South Korea.

“If President Moon Jae-in approaches virus control politically like now, he will be bringing a nationwide resistance,” said Kim Jong-in, interim leader of the main opposition People Power Party, in a meeting Monday.

“I can’t help but suspect the government is picking out its response level (to potential high-risk events) depending on political interests.“

In response to conservative groups’ rally plans for Liberation Day on Aug. 15, National Foundation Day on Oct. 3 and Hangeul Day on Oct. 9, Moon and officials called for strong measures to prevent any illegal rallies from taking place, accusing rally organizers of disrupting the country’s fight against COVID-19.

Moon even likened the street rallies to “anti-social crimes” that cannot be based on the freedom of assembly and speech as they “threaten the safety of the community.”

A massive number of police officers and vehicles had been mobilized in what critics said was an intimidating show of force against demonstrators.

On Hangeul Day, the police dispatched nearly 12,000 officers from 180 units. Nearly 400 buses were used to encircle Gwanghwamun Square, the main rally site. Police responded similarly to the Oct. 3 rallies.

But on Saturday, around 7,000 police officers were dispatched to the labor rally sites with 180 buses. No fences or bus walls were installed.

According to data from Rep. Park Wan-su of the People Power Party, fewer than 300 people participated in anti-government rallies on Oct. 3 throughout Seoul. But it was reported that around 3,000 people participated in Saturday’s rallies hosted by the KCTU in the capital.

The government and the ruling Democratic Party have denied accusations of being less strict toward liberal groups, adding that the difference in police response stems from the different levels of social distancing that were in place at the time of the rallies.

Korea was enforcing Level 2 social distancing when conservative groups hosted rallies in October, but Level 1 rules were in place this past Saturday.

Seoul had banned outdoor gatherings of 10 people or more until Oct. 13, when it decided to ease its restrictions and allow gatherings of up to 100 people.

“Virus control is not a problem of ideology or faith, and both conservatives and liberals with no exception must follow virus control measures,” said Democratic Party spokesperson Kang Sun-woo in a statement Saturday.

“The government and the Democratic Party have never for once gone easy on the safety of our people, and that will be our way moving forward.”

A senior police officer also rejected accusations of double standards.

“The police have to respect virus control authorities’ decisions,” said Song Min-hun, the central police agency’s deputy commissioner general, in a press briefing Monday, stressing that the response to a rally is determined by the level of social distancing rules in place.

“In concern of quarantine protocols, there is absolutely no value in considering the characteristics of those who organize rallies.”

The KCTU also emphasized that it had followed guidelines as to the number of participants allowed at each rally and had kept numbers below 100 in Seoul.

By Ko Jun-tae (