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[Newsmaker] Subway protesters face online abuse

Protesters call for barrier-free access to all Seoul Metro stations on Monday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Protesters call for barrier-free access to all Seoul Metro stations on Monday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination, a disability advocacy group that has recently been staging protests at subway stations, is facing increasing hatred online, with some especially emboldened by a conservative political leader.

In a series of Facebook posts People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok has called the protest “uncivilized” and “illegal.” He blamed the protesters for deliberately causing subway delays during busy hours and accused them of staging the protest as a conservative administration is about to take office. 

During the party’s supreme council meeting Monday Lee said on the protest, “The insistence on having one's own way by causing the majority of law-abiding citizens inconvenience cannot be tolerated in a civilized sociey.”

He went on, “If we begin to tolerate this kind of approach then all issues will be settled through abnormal competition of who can cause the greatest fear or inconvenience, rather than through rational discussion or conversation.”

The head of the activist group, Park Kyung-seok, shared via Facebook on Sunday a screenshot of some of the abusive comments targeting protesters and people with disabilities in general -- many of which repeated claims raised by Lee against the protest. 

He then called on the party chief to apologize for “distorting the picture.” “I urge Mr. Lee to see the reality facing wheelchair users, who are still having a hard time accessing public transportation,” Park said.

The leader of the incoming ruling party has refused to apologize.

“I have no intention of apologizing. I don’t see why I should,” Lee responded in another message on the same social platform on Wednesday. He then went on to argue the group was threatening to protest unless he apologized.

A member of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination said in a phone interview although the digital assaults directed at the protesters were “something familiar,” the recent social media confrontation “has begotten a new wave of verbal attacks.”

“It’s regrettable that Mr. Lee has chosen to use his influence and power as the leader of a major political party to echo the hateful rhetoric online,” she said.

“I see many commenters are channeling Lee Jun-seok -- using his logic and his words.”

She said the protest was about wheelchair users being able to share the subway with other commuters. “If the presence of wheelchair-using passengers during rush hour causes a disruption in service, maybe that only goes on to prove the point of the protest.”

The claims being put forth by Lee to denounce the protest appear to be unsubstantiated.

Lee’s characterization of the subway protest as being illegal, for one thing, “has no basis,” according to Suh Chae-wan of Lawyers for a Democratic Society’s Human Rights Defense Center.

He said that peaceful protests “cannot be unlawful,” referring to past rulings from the highest courts.

The Supreme Court said in 2009 that “an assembly or protest is an act in which a large number of people gather for a common goal and demonstrate in a public place to convey their opinions to others, and in the process certain inconvenience arising is inevitable, which people not partaking in the action are also obligated to accept.”

In 2003, the Constitutional Court said that “the inconvenience caused to the general public due to an individual or group of individuals exercising their freedom of assembly must be tolerated by the state and any third party.”

As for Seoul Metro’s ongoing civil suit against the protesters, Suh said it was “an example of what you call a strategic lawsuit against public participation, which is when legal action is used to silence criticism.”

While Lee said the disability advocates were holding his party accountable for the failures of the previous liberal administration, this was also untrue. The first of the mobility protests began in 2001, and they have continued through both conservative and liberal administrations for two decades.

On this Park of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination said Lee was “politicizing an issue that shouldn’t be political.”

Song Jae-ryong, a cultural sociology professor at Kyung Hee University, said Lee was “ignoring the context of why people with disabilities might be protesting in the first place.”

“People with disabilities are denied access to daily spaces and it is our duty as a society to fix the systems to accommodate them,” he said.

He said that Lee was “pandering to the worst of Korean society” with his latest remarks, and that he “gave those ugly prejudices an opportunity to enter public dialogue.”

Another sociology professor, Sul Dong-hoon of Jeonbuk National University said it was “inappropriate” for someone in Lee’s position to “condemn the protesters for fighting for their rights.” “Protests are supposed to make people uncomfortable. Otherwise, people wouldn’t notice,” he said.

Lee calling out the disability rights protesters “may embolden bullies into thinking this kind of behavior is acceptable,” he worried.

The protesters already face hostility not just online, but also in person. On Monday morning as protesters in wheelchairs traveled through seven stations from around 8:20 a.m. to 9:10 a.m., heckles were thrown at them and there were at least two direct confrontations.

Kim Yun-tae, a sociology professor at Korea University, said Lee was engaging in a “divisive politics” by painting the protesters as aggressors and the rest of the passengers as victims.

“This is about mobility rights of disabled people. Why bring other passengers into this?” he posed, referring to Lee’s comment that the wheelchair-using protesters were “holding people of Seoul hostage.”

Other political figures, including those from Lee’s own party, have spoken out against his words and the ensuing hatred in cyberspace.

People Power Party Rep. Kim Yea-ji apologized on behalf of the party leader at Monday’s protest and promised action to address the discrimination against people with disabilities, while the party’s former Floor Leader Na Kyung-won said attacking the protest was “immature.” 

Rep. Jang Hye-yeong of the minor Justice Party said Lee’s views “should be excluded from becoming established as mainstream discourse.”

By Kim Arin (