Citizens protest first arrests in newly opened Gwanghwamun Plaza

Arrested press conference participants respond with a challenge against new government and police ordinances regarding assemblies

South Korean police arrested a number of citizens who participated in a press conference held by civic organizations and opposition political parties in Gwanghwamun Plaza, on August 3. The press conference was the first held in the plaza since its opening on August 1. The police arrested them on the grounds of holding a ‘not-reported assembly.’

An estimated 20 members of four opposition parties Seoul district chapters and civic organizations, including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) and the Cultural Action network, held a press conference in Gwanghwamun Plaza. They are urging the government to abolish the ordinance against assemblies in the plaza.

Police officers arrested 10 participants, including Park Won-Seok, the director of PSPD, on charges of violating the Assembly and Demonstration Act. The police argue that they have grounds to cite the press conference organizers for holding an assembly that was not reported because the participants shouted slogans and held up placards.

Participants talk about problems with ordinances governing the plaza. They criticized the requirement on citizens to collect dual approvals from both the Seoul city government and the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency in order to use the plaza. In addition, they questioned the fact that government bodies or public offices have priority in using the square. During the press conference, they said, “Gwanghwamun Plaza should be known as Gwangwhamun Garden because of the facilities which have been installed in order to prevent citizens from exercising their freedom of assembly and demonstration.”

Participants shouted slogans and held up placards that read, “Flowers are for gardens, freedom of expression are for public squares,” and “Allow the free communication of citizens.”

The police deployed around 150 riot police officers around the plaza prior to the commencement of the press conference. Just after the conference began, the police surrounded the participants and ordered them to disperse. The police gave the order three times, and 30 minutes into the conference offers began moving to break up the press conference.

“We simply held a peaceful press conference, and we neither prevented traffic nor destroyed public property,” the participants said. “There is no rule on earth that exists that says those who exercise the freedom of expression in a plaza can be arrested.”

An official of Jongno Police Station said, “The act of holding placards and shouting slogans comes under the definition of demonstration, which affects bystander and passer-by. We will deal with unlawful assemblies in Gwangwhamun Plaza according to the law.”

“The government has arbitrarily defined a press conference as an unlawful assembly and has exposed its real intention to allow only events that are suitable to the taste of it, in a plaza that has been built at the taxpayers’ expense of dozens of billion Won,” the PSPD said in a statement released just after the arrest of some of its members. “It is our intention to persist in our activities to guarantee the freedom of expression.”

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