As Korea’s ruling party and government move to restrict public assemblies, police train to break up protests

Posted on : 2023-05-25 17:06 KST Modified on : 2023-05-25 17:20 KST
The ruling party and administration are underscoring “strict enforcement of the law,” but critics call the move a regression to the time of authoritarian rule in Korea
Yun Jae-ok, the floor leader of the ruling People Power Party, speaks at a party-administration council meeting on the “establishment of public order and protection of citizen rights” at the National Assembly building on May 24. (Yonhap)
Yun Jae-ok, the floor leader of the ruling People Power Party, speaks at a party-administration council meeting on the “establishment of public order and protection of citizen rights” at the National Assembly building on May 24. (Yonhap)

South Korean police are to begin holding their first drills in six years for forcibly dispersing illegal assemblies, after the government and ruling People Power Party (PPP) formally announced plans to restrict assemblies and demonstrations by groups with “records of breaking the law.”

The surprise action by the government and party came just a day after President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered “strict enforcement of the law” against what he declared to be “illegal” outdoor demonstrations by the Korean Construction Workers Union (KCWU), which is affiliated with the umbrella Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

Critics argued that the move by the administration and party to restrict assemblies based on a proactive interpretation of the law to suit their needs represents a “regression into authoritarianism,” as it means the current reporting-based system for assemblies and demonstrations will be operated as a de facto “permit” system.

Following a PPP-administration council meeting on the “establishment of public order and protection of citizen rights” held at the National Assembly on Wednesday, PPP floor leader Yun Jae-ok announced plans to “respond comprehensively in the future, starting at the assembly reporting stage.”

“We intend to examine restrictions on assemblies and demonstrations that clearly pose a direct threat to other people’s rights and to public security and order by groups with records of breaking the law, such as this latest [KCWU] demonstration,” he declared.

He also said that a “consensus was reached” at the meeting that there “was no other choice but to apply restrictions at the reporting stage” for assemblies and demonstrations on major city thoroughfares during morning and afternoon rush hours.

In response to arguments that this represents a de facto permit system for demonstrations, the PPP pointed to Article 5 of the Assembly and Demonstration Act. But the recent KCWU demonstrations, which Yoon has declared “illegal,” have been far from the sort of violent gatherings that are banned by that act.

The Assembly and Demonstration Act states that the police may issue prior prohibition notices in cases of an “assembly or demonstration which clearly poses a direct threat to public peace and order by inciting collective violence, threats, destruction, arson, etc.” This means that there must be a reason to anticipate the assembly or demonstration in question will be characterized by violence on par with a riot scenario.

While the KCWU demonstrations have caused some controversy with their noise and occupation of roads, police have been unable to disperse them with aggressive tactics because they have been non-violent in nature.

The policy of restricting such assemblies and demonstrations from taking place on major thoroughfares during rush hours could also be seen as an example of arbitrary enforcement of the law. The current act does not include “time of day” as a basis for banning or restricting assemblies, although police have been restricting large-scale demonstrations reported during nighttime hours on weekdays based on Article 12 of the act, which concerns the obstruction of traffic.

Observers are expressing concerns that the police might produce more arbitrary decisions now that the PPP and administration have signaled a strong intent to change the current system.

Conventionally, the police define the morning and afternoon rush hours as falling before 10 am and after 5 pm. Those standards were set arbitrarily by the police.

In the case of the KCWU demonstrations, the organizers recently filed reports for two days of demonstrations on May 16 and 17. On both days, the police partially restricted them to taking place between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm.

“This isn’t any sort of bylaw or policy,” a Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency official said. “We restrict large-scale demonstrations on weekdays between 6 and 10 am and 5 and 11 pm based on the potential for obstructing traffic during morning and evening rush hours.”

Park Han-hee, an attorney with the group Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights, explained, “There was a provision barring demonstrations during morning and evening rush hours that existed when the Assembly and Demonstration Act was enacted in 1963 during the Park Chung-hee administration, but ended up being left out when that law was amended in 1973.”

“In bringing that back, they’re basically saying we should return to even before the Yushin era,” she said.

Other approaches discussed by the PPP and administration the same day included more stringent standards on noise generated by assemblies and demonstrations; improvements to the police manual that has reduced the police’s use of their authority to respond to assemblies and demonstrations; and more support to protect police from being held responsible, including assistance for legal actions.

The president and ruling party’s push for a tougher line on demonstrations has also prompted a shift in approaches on the police’s part.

Between May 25 and June, the National Police Agency’s security bureau plans to hold drills focusing on the forcible dispersal of assemblies and demonstrations and the arrest of people engaged in certain activities there.

Shortly after a meeting presided over by the bureau’s directory on Monday, an internal document was circulated among police announcing successive drills on dispersal orders, temporary storage of broadcasting equipment, restricting departures from a demonstration site, and forcible dispersals and arrests.

The document also mentioned the need for “all riot police members to mentally rearm themselves on this occasion.” It stressed that “intensive exercises will be held to reinforce riot police squadron capabilities despite the ongoing humid weather,” adding that employee complaints and criticisms will be accepted through the police intranet and Blind, an anonymous app for employees.

Civil society observers blasted the PPP and administration’s approach as a “regression to past authoritarian governments.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy said, “We are aghast at the PPP and administration’s intention to pursue unconstitutional legislation that restricts freedom of assembly and association, which is fundamental to democracy, and that introduces the kind of assembly and demonstration ‘permit system’ that is banned by our Constitution.”

“They are declaring a return to the authoritarian regime of the 1980s, which declared any kind of assembly or demonstration opposing the government to be ‘illegal,’” the group added.

Baram, an activist group for human rights, said, “Whether the demonstration is an outdoor demonstration or a dancing demonstration is entirely up to the organizers. Freedom of assembly guarantees the right for them to decide for themselves the time, place, methods, and aims of their demonstration.”

“We sternly denounce these attempts to turn back freedom of assembly through approaches such as a ban on assemblies and demonstrations at night,” the group added.

By Park Ji-young, staff reporter; Shin Min-jung, staff reporter; Yoon Yeon-jeong, staff reporter

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