The Korea Herald


[Seoul Struggles 11] Do I have to detour again to avoid the protest?

Heart of politics draws mass rallies, accompanying discomfort for citizens

By Ko Jun-tae

Published : Sept. 12, 2021 - 16:55

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Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions hold a mass rally near Seoul Jongno Police Station in Jongno, central Seoul, on Sept. 2 to protest the arrest of KCTU head Yang Kyung-soo on the same day. (Yonhap) Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions hold a mass rally near Seoul Jongno Police Station in Jongno, central Seoul, on Sept. 2 to protest the arrest of KCTU head Yang Kyung-soo on the same day. (Yonhap)
On July 3, streets in central Seoul were flooded with thousands of members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions giving voice to their cause. For the vast majority of people, however, the rally was a source of irritation and inconvenience.

"They think they can take the street whenever they like, and I don’t know where that right comes from," said 41-year-old office worker Kim Seung-hye, who was in the area at the time to dine out with a friend.

"I had to walk at least 3 kilometers more to find a cab, and even then the traffic jam was really bad, so in the end I think I got home like two hours later than I originally planned."

Kim said she was annoyed that no support was given to people in central Seoul, where such rallies are often held. Police involvement is designed only to ensure that no violence starts during a rally, not for the benefit of citizens in the area, she added.

"I understand we are in a democratic society, and they could be entitled to hold protests," Kim said. "But what about my rights to stay free of unwanted noise and to stay unthreatened when walking in the city that I live in on the weekend?"

When protests occur, buses are detoured and subway stations become packed. Public transportation no longer can reach the areas of protest, and cars not knowing how traffic will be managed inevitably are stuck with hundreds of others on the road for hours.

"I had to stop by a bookstore in Gwanghwamun but only learned of protests and the police blockade going on after I got too close to the area," said Jang Sang-wook, a 36-year-old Seoul resident who recounted his experience driving to Gwanghwamun on this year's Liberation Day in August.

"I parked my car in a public parking lot and decided to take a bus, but guess what, no buses were running to where I was trying to go. I had to walk, and if my memory serves me right, I believe it was dangerously hot that day. I thought I was going to die."

What makes traversing such areas more difficult is that it is not clear where people should look to see if protests are going to happen and if they would have to search for different ways to get to where they need on a protest day.

There is no available formula on how bus routes will change when protests occur, as they are forced to quickly adapt.

Seoul residents that The Korea Herald interviewed for the story said they are not sure how bus routes or subway train intervals change when protests occur. Nobody has told them, and they could not expect to know the changes when protests occur.

But they do raise that such information should be made available and people should be able to know what changes are being made to public transportation -- if there’s any formula to how officials decide the changes.

"Shouldn’t this kind of information be easily available?" Jang asked. "This is a smart technology era, so we should be able to know if we should avoid certain areas on a given day."

An official with the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s city transportation office said the city does prepare alternative bus routes and make adjustments to public transportation when rallies are held, but acknowledged the municipal government has no set plans made in response for rallies of greater sizes.

"The police control much of how roads will be blocked and how pedestrian access will be controlled when rallies are held, and the city government is in more of a supporting position," the official said.

"We do respond case by case depending on how rallies are planned to be held and how many are expected to attend but we don’t have any preset game plans for this."

Experts point out that officials should prepare a comprehensive and strategic system to respond to mass rallies for the comfort of residents. They say the city government and police have mostly been passive in responding to protests, preparing responses only after rally plans are reported.

"So far, we have only focused on the freedom of assembly, so opinions of those experiencing discomfort from rallies have been largely ignored," said Yu Jeong-whon, a transportation systems engineering professor at Ajou University.

"Officials are too concentrated on controlling how rallies are held and how violence will be prevented, not on how they will ensure traffic disturbance is minimized during mass rallies."

Yu said people should not be expected to tolerate traffic inconvenience when rallies occur. To ensure freedom of assembly and mobility are both respected, Yu believes officials need to be more prepared in designating rally locations as well as where people can pass through while rallies are held.

And in the process, officials need to interact with residents to unfold effective plans that meet the demands of average people and their lifestyles, he added.

"We already see roads that bar cars from entry on weekends in some neighborhoods, and with that kind of system in place, people are totally aware of how they can get around in that neighborhood without any further instruction," he said.

"And that kind of preparation could be a solution to assuring people their freedom of mobility. There should be a set system letting people know what to expect when rallies occur in rally-heavy neighborhoods."