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[Newsmaker] Tension rises again over Hangeul Day rallies

Disease prevention authorities and the police are on high alert once again as mass rallies are scheduled to be held in downtown Seoul over the long weekend starting from Hangeul Day on Friday.

While the authorities maintain that outdoor rallies are still inappropriate due to COVID-19, organizers of protests against the Moon Jae-in administration are seeking to get court approval like they did for the Aug. 15 Liberation Day rallies.

The Seoul Administrative Court is set to review on Thursday a request filed by the organizers who call themselves the “Aug. 15 emergency committee” to suspend the execution of the Seoul mayor’s and police prohibition of rallies.

The committee argues that it doesn’t make sense that outdoor rallies around Gwanghwamun and Seoul City Hall are prohibited for eight months when subways, airports and restaurants are crowded.

“The (ban on rallies) seriously infringes on the Constitutional rights for assembly and association,” they said in their appeal to the court.

“Subway trains are crowded with over 7 million people everyday, and 300,000 people used the Jeju airport over the Chuseok holidays. Dining and drinking at restaurants is permitted. The unconditional all-out ban on rallies attended by people wearing masks has no reasonable grounds, even from the epidemic perspective.”

Of the 28,000 Aug. 15 rally participants who were tested for COVID-19, only about 200 were positive, marking an infection rate of about 1 percent.

“This is similar to the COVID infection rate of the entire country. There were no mass infections,” the committee claimed.

Including the close contacts of the infected Aug. 15 rally participants, however, some 600 people were confirmed.

The committee has reported to the authorities that around 1,000 people will rally each in front of the Kyobo building in Gwanghwamun and around the park north of the Sejong Performing Arts Center.

They said they will place 1,000 chairs, bottles of sanitizer and medical staff at both sites, and follow the rules by wearing masks and checking temperatures.

The disease prevention authorities say, however, that people should avoid crowding as much as possible as the epidemic is still spreading.

“There are no clear signs yet that (the virus) is subsiding in the Seoul metropolitan area. We ask you to refrain from crowded rallies and events over the long weekend,” said Sohn Young-rae, an official of the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 task force.

“Freedom of assembly is an important basic right, but (the government) had no choice but to temporarily restrict it, considering the spread (of the coronavirus), with some 600 people confirmed (including the participants and their close contacts) due to the Liberation Day rallies downtown Seoul.”

An official of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said it is important to keep even a single person from getting infected, as one person can spread it to dozens of others.

The court is also closely watching the spread of the virus.

The Seoul Administrative Court had disallowed protests on Oct. 3, citing cases of mass infections that took place nationwide after August.

By Kim So-hyun (