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Banned from mass rallies, protesters hold ‘press conferences’ on Hangeul Day

A woman holds a single-person protest in Jongno-gu, central Seoul, on Friday after officials banned mass rallies from virus fears. (Yonhap)
A woman holds a single-person protest in Jongno-gu, central Seoul, on Friday after officials banned mass rallies from virus fears. (Yonhap)
Conservative groups held “press conferences” and “drive-thru” rallies instead of large-scale protests Friday as police officers and buses were mobilized to prevent illegal demonstrations in central Seoul.

Despite heated debate over whether it was necessary, police again parked buses in tight formation to control access to the Gwanghwamun area on Hangeul Day.

But the police did not set up the wall of buses around the area’s main central square out of concerns over freedom of assembly.

The police have dispatched around 11,000 officers and hundreds of buses to the Gwanghwamun area since Friday morning to prevent illegal protests. They operated four shuttle buses as a traffic support for those needing to pass the area and ran 57 checkpoints at entries to Seoul.

The government has warned of a stern response to any illegal protests on the Hangeul Day. Officials said they would also seek compensation for damages from protesters if any new COVID-19 case is reported in connection to the rallies.

As mass rallies were banned in the area, conservative groups held “press conferences” nearby to criticize and protest the Moon Jae-in administration and its moves.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, 1,220 rallies have been reported in the city for Friday. The police have barred 139 rallies that reported 10 or more participants or were scheduled to be held in restricted areas the central districts of Jung-gu and Jongno-gu.

As the Seoul city government has imposed a ban on rallies of 10 or more people, a number of groups decided to hold press conferences, which do not require reporting to law enforcement in advance.

A number of conservative groups including Sarang Jeil Church, the center of a major COVID-19 cluster, and anti-abortion civic group Kpro-life held a press conference at 11 a.m. in front of the Independence Gate in Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, to criticize the government’s plan to allow abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy.

The government made the legislative revision plan public on Wednesday, which ignited a debate over women’s abortion rights. The revision in plan would also conditionally allow abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy depending on individual’s socioeconomic and health status.

The groups staged another press briefing at 2 p.m. by the Gwanghwamun Square to criticize the Moon administration’s virus control measures.

Opposition party lawmakers criticized the police mobilization as the administration’s suppression of people’s right to assembly.

“It is unconstitutionally stubborn (for the Moon administration) to block out the voice of his opponents using the excuse of COVID-19,” said Rep. Bae June-young of the People Power Party in a statement Friday.

The ruling Democratic Party politicians defended the police’s actions, saying controlling the COVID-19 situation must be prioritized before anything else.

“We must not be protecting or favoring those forcibly running illegal protests,” said Democratic Party spokesperson Choi In-ho in an address Friday. “People will not just sit and watch if there is any political protection for those forcibly running rallies and disrupting virus control efforts.”

With limitations in place, right-wing groups also held “drive-thru” rallies throughout Seoul and Gyeonggi Province like they did during the National Foundation Day in Oct. 3 in accordance with a court ruling. A total of four drive-thru rallies were reported for Friday in the regions.

A local court conditionally approved the demonstrations based on freedom of assembly as long as they comply with strict anti-infection measures. The court allowed nine people -- each in their cars -- to hold a rally for two hours but set forth conditions such as banning the lowering of car windows and the chanting of slogans during the rally.

A conservative group marched nine black cars from Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, to Seoul, passing by the residences of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and the current Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae in the city. Our Republican Party’s Seoul branch also staged a drive-thru rally of nine cars in the Jamsil area.

The police required drive-thru rally participants to report their names, phone numbers and license plate numbers before starting the marches.

By Ko Jun-tae (