The city of Seoul is gearing up for its annual spring festival lineup, but is facing difficulties as the events’ main venue, Seoul Plaza, is illegally occupied by die-hard supporters of ousted President Park Geun-hye.
Despite the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s repeated requests to vacate the space, about 40 pro-Park tents remain clustered in one-third of the area, refusing to yield both to government orders and the Constitutional Court’s decision to expel Park from power.
Pro-Park protest tents are pitched on Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall. (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald)
When The Korea Herald visited the square Friday, the grass in the area had withered and several protesters -- mostly middle-aged or older -- were found in the camp, discussing the “bleak” future of South Korea while eating instant ramen and drinking soju. A loudspeaker announcement claiming Park’s innocence and wishing for her return pierced through the air.
“We have slapped the pro-Park protest tents with a fine of 30.3 million won ($26,655),” said Chung Sang-taek, chief of general affairs at the Seoul Metropolitan Government, adding that the illegal occupiers have paid just a portion of that fine -- 9.2 million won.
“So far they have clearly expressed their reluctance to remove the tents, but we are trying to solve this problem as peacefully as we can.”
Located in front of Seoul City Hall, Seoul Plaza is a 6,294-square-meter grassy area frequented by Seoul citizens and tourists due to its proximity to tourist attractions such as Gyeongbokgung and the Myeong-dong district. It is also a venue for major festivals such as the annual Queer Culture Festival in June, South Korea’s largest LGBT parade.
A notice has been posted on the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s website, saying that the square is unavailable for use until April 30 due to “unauthorized occupation by some groups.”
So far, a total of nine annual spring festivals -- including the Spring Flower Market, Joint Worship for Easter Sunday and Earth Day Festival -- have been canceled, and five festival committees have retracted their applications to hold events there, according to the city officials.
Preschoolers take a stroll around the pro-Park protest tents at Seoul Plaza. (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald)
The problem also extends to issues related to lawn maintenance, as seed sowing in the area has been delayed indefinitely since March 1.
Still, Hyun Yoo-jin, a woman in her sixties, who was volunteering as a receptionist for the group of tents, was adamant at remaining in the spot.
“We will move out once the tents related to the Sewol ferry are removed,” she told The Korea Herald, referring to a similar tent zone in Gwanghwamun Square, just a few blocks away.
“We have a mission to steer the country in the right direction.”
A view of Seoul Plaza (Yonhap)
The Gwanghwamun tent zone, set up shortly after the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol, considered the worst peacetime maritime disaster in South Korean history, also remains, as of Friday.
The government said that out of the 14 tents in the square, only three tents are unregistered and have been regularly paying fines since 2014. The 11 registered tents are being funded by the government upon the request of the Sewol victims’ families.
The situation is also drawing complaints from parents and teachers who take children around the area for daily strolls.
“A lot of children come out to play around here, but the current environment has cut back the number of visits to the plaza for a lot of schools in the area -- (the behavior of the protestors) doesn’t seem to have a healthy influence on a child’s mind,” said Choi Eun-young, a 29-year-old teacher at a local preschool in Junggu district, who was chaperoning a group of 10 children Friday.
By Jung Min-kyung (email@example.com