Tension is mounting in front of the iconic Deoksu Palace in central Seoul as rag-tag protesters vow to defy a government order to end their months-long decampment or face eviction by police.
The Jung-gu district office delivered a notice Wednesday that it would ask police to break up their protest tents and impose fines unless they take them down voluntarily within 15 days.
The roadside street beside the Joseon Dynasty palace’s main gate has been a symbolic epicenter for anti-government and labor demonstrations since 2009.
A short walk from City Hall, it is now occupied by laid-off workers of Ssangyong Motor, opponents of a naval base under construction on Jeju Island and families of five urban poor protesters killed in a clash with police in 2009.
Labor unionists protest in front of Deoksu Palace in central Seoul on Thursday while a traditional court ritual is reenacted. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
“We’re not going to leave until the matters are resolved, and we’ll be out in the streets protesting without a tent if we have to,” Lee Won-ho, 32, a leader of an activist group for the truth about the Yongsan incident, told The Korea Herald.
The authorities cited complaints from foreign visitors and neighborhood merchants about disruption, inconvenience and damage to one of Seoul’s most popular tourist attractions.
The warning came after a joint meeting among the Seoul City government, Jung-gu office and Namdaemun police on Wednesday.
“The camps are illegal,” said an official from the department in charge at the ward office. “They also do not look good, especially since the illegal tents are set up in front of a tourist spot and in the middle of the capital Seoul.”
The workers set up a tent in April after submitting a notice of assembly to the police. However, they illegally pitched another that month, triggering clashes with the authorities.
District officials and riot police attempted to evict them in April and May but failed as the protesters fiercely resisted with inflammable materials.
The protesters threatened to fight against police attempts to demolish their shelters.
“We are here because this is a place where we can be seen and heard,” Moon Gi-ju, a unionist of Ssangyong, said.
“None of us are criminals, we’re all ordinary people. Nobody wants to sleep out here in these tents if they can help it,” said Lee Mi-hyeon, 34, a member of the Nationwide Association against the Jeju Naval Base Construction.
“But we will not give up easily just because we were told to take our tents down.”
By Kim Young-won and Sang Youn-joo