Police and citizens conflict over Roh’s memorial

Posted on : 2009-05-25 11:52 KST Modified on : 2009-05-25 11:52 KST
As a procession of mourners grows, so does citizen anger against the politicized large-scale deployment of police force

Anger from citizens on Sunday was as great as the mass of white flowers that had been placed at a spontaneous memorial for the late President Roh Moo-hyun that emerged in front of Deoksugung Palace’s Daehanmun Gate. Police placed a double line of police vehicles between the surrounding streets and walkways in order to control passage. As the line of mourners grew longer, citizens began raising their voices, asking whether the police were going too far in blocking acts of mourning.

Police used some 60 vehicles as barriers in front of Daehanmun Gate where the memorial had been established and between Seoul Plaza and Cheonggye Plaza to control citizen access. Police placed a double line of some 20 riot police buses in between the walkway and road in front of Daehanmun Gate, completely blocking the memorial from outside view. The plaza in front of City Hall was completely surrounded by buses and not even one blade of grass was visible. Im Won-sik, 28 years old, said he had heard of a memorial near City Hall and came to pay his respects on Sunday, but because the memorial was completely blocked by police vehicles, he did not know where it was. He wondered whether people could properly memorialize the president under these conditions.

With police controlling passage into the area surrounding the memorial, the procession of mourners grew abnormally as time passed. According to a police estimate, a line of 4,000 mourners went from the memorial in front of Daehanmun Gate past the stonewall of Deoksugung Palace and around 150 meters towards Gwanghwamun as of 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Due to the police presence, the line snaked back another 50 meters in the direction of the memorial, went underground through Exit 3 of the City Hall subway station, circled around the ticket booth, and came back up through Exit 4 from the Korean Press Center and back towards City Hall. The length of the line was over 1 km. Police blocked off City Hall’s side of Exit 5.

A Mr. Mun, 51 years of age and who came from Seoul’s Sillim-dong in Gwanak-gu to visit the memorial, said it took around 30 minutes just to find the end of the line after exiting the City Hall subway station. He referred to the police blockade of the memorial procession as wretched. Ms. Kim Jeong-ae, 41 years of age and who waited over two hours to place flowers before Roh’s memorial portrait, criticized the government for not providing a decent memorial space in Seoul and for blocking the citizens’ spontaneous memorial.

A Mr. Jo, age 38, said police helped citizens mourn when Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan passed away, but were setting up walls of police vehicles in this instance. He asked if this was the proper way to pay respects to a former president.

Since Saturday, the online bulletin board of the National Police Agency has been flooded with hundreds of posts criticizing the behavior of police, asking police whom they worked for and pleading that they not block mourners or Roh’s “final path.” A police official noted that an average mourner would return home after paying respects, and asked why people were staying in front of Daehanmun Gate. He said police had set up a blockade because people who were intent on holding an unregistered demonstration were gathering. The police deployed 12 companies or a total of 960 men in front of the Daehanmun Gate alone. Throughout the entirety of Seoul, they deployed 104 companies or 8,320 men.

Shin Kwang-Yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University said the government’s blocking of the citizens’ free cultural and memorial activities based on the arbitrary presumption that a demonstration could develop was a violation of the constitutional right of the freedom of association. Others further suggest that this blockade shows that police power is not being based on proper judgments or to protect public safety, but instead is being used politically.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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