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[Newsmaker] Seoul mulls drinking ban along Han River

Death of intoxicated medical student spurs review

People are resting inside tents at Banpo Hangang Park by the Han River in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, on Sunday. (Yonhap)
People are resting inside tents at Banpo Hangang Park by the Han River in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Fried chicken and beer by the Han River could become a thing of the past as early as this summer as Seoul officials are weighing a ban on outdoor drinking within riverside parks.

Park Yoo-mi, a disease control official at the Seoul Metropolitan Government, said in a daily press briefing Wednesday that the city government is considering a ban on outdoor drinking at all of its 11 riverside parks, some of the most populous leisure areas found within the city for residents and tourists.

“Related bureaus within the city government are jointly reviewing how much to expand the (scope of a ban) on alcohol consumption and what time throughout the day to impose it,” Park said.

The announcement follows the death of 21-year-old medical student Sohn Jung-min, who was found dead in the river late last month. Sohn was said to have drunk with his friend at a riverside park in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul before he died.

The two reportedly drank almost all of the nine bottles of rice wine and soju they brought to the park. The exact cause of Sohn’s death has not yet been determined, but many claimed that excessive drinking played a role in his death.

In light of the incident, calls have grown for authorities to ban outdoor drinking at riverside parks to help prevent similar incidents.

A public petition to the Blue House that garnered more than 6,000 signatures by early Thursday asked for a thorough investigation into Sohn’s death and measures to outlaw alcohol consumption at riverside parks.

The Seoul government is legislatively entitled to impose such restriction. A revision to the National Health Promotion Act that comes into effect on June 30 will allow local governments to designate public places as alcohol-free zones and impose a 100,000 won ($88.50) fine for violators.

The city was already able to designate urban parks and places additionally chosen by the Seoul mayor as alcohol-free zones with a municipal act revision that took place in 2017. But the measure only had power to limit and penalize drinkers who caused public disruptions, not the act of drinking itself.

Seoul has since then designated 22 urban parks directly managed by the city government as alcohol-free zones, but its 11 riverside parks have not been added to the list as they are not categorized as “urban parks.”

The city government is also considering the move as a means to limit the spread of COVID-19 in summer months, when scores flock to riverside parks for gatherings and leisure activities.

To ensure social distancing rules are kept, the city government said in its summertime preparation plan unveiled Thursday that it will recommend people refrain from consuming food and alcohol at riverside parks and advise visitors to return home early.

According to city government data, 67 million visits were recorded at all riverside parks in Seoul throughout 2019, with 27 percent of them being from June to August.

The proposal has already gathered steam within Seoul’s legislative branch. Kim In-ho, chairman of the Seoul Metropolitan Council, expressed support for a legislative revision aimed at establishing a healthy alcohol-drinking culture.

“There is a need for Seoul to preemptively research and take opinions to swiftly revise its legislation with the purpose of creating its own healthy alcohol consumption culture,” Kim said in a Facebook post Tuesday.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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