Statue of King Sejong with Gwanghwamun in the background. Photo: Wikipedia

The far-right Our Republican Party (ORP) has been illegally erecting tents and staging sit-ins in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square over the past several weeks. ORP has been demanding that the National Assembly investigate the case of a rally on March 10, 2017, opposing the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye. Five people were killed during a protest, and conservatives including ORP have argued that the Blue House should be held responsible.

However, the City of Seoul has claimed that ORP has been staging illegal sit-ins at Gwanghwamun Square, and on June 25, the city administration removed tents that ORP had set up. The administration said it would seize the salary of Cho Won-jin, a member of the National Assembly and leader of ORP, for the cost of the demolition process. Cho vehemently protested and said he would set up more tents again at Gwanghwamun Square from July 1, after US President Donald Trump’s visit to Seoul. ORP relocated its tents to Cheonggye Plaza temporarily in cooperation with police security during Trump’s visit. In the meantime, the city took action to prevent ORP from reinstalling its tents by installing 135 large flowerpots in Gwanghwamun Square. ORP has not yet been able to reinstall its tents, but keeps saying it will do so soon.

Gwanghwamun Square is a space used by politicians in South Korea voice their demands. It is also the place where politicians and bereaved relatives of Kim Yong-gyun, a worker who died in an accident while working in impoverished conditions on December 11, 2018, staged a hunger strike to press for a “Kim Yong-gyun Law” for the prevention of outsourcing of irregular workers.

Since the 1980s, Gwanghwamun Square has been used as a demonstration site for certain political groups or organizations, not as a place of recreation. And now, it has degenerated further into a place for illegal sit-ins by ORP.

Most tourists who travel to South Korea visit Seoul during their itinerary. The concern is that if they visit Gwanghwamun Square, what they will see and hear is a very biased political ideology. Tourists may think that President Moon Jae-in is abusing his power to suppress Park.

In late June, I asked three travelers who were passing through Gwanghwamun Square what they thought of ORP’s protest. These were people who had no idea what was going on in Korean society. They said ORP’s protests had convinced them that Moon was politically suppressing Park to help his Democratic Party win the legislative election in 2020. They also said it seemed to them that Park had been imprisoned on false pretenses by Democrats.

Just as yellow journalism harms fact-based news coverage, ORP’s political actions have played a part in giving travelers a wrong perception of South Korea.

In South Korea, a country where various political ideologies are allowed to be expressed, freedom of protest and freedom of expression by groups or individuals will be more and more respected as time goes on. However, such demonstrations should always be based on correct information and official records.

ORP is unilaterally staging a sit-in at Gwanghwamun Square in defiance of the constitution of South Korea. Gwanghwamun Square was the most important site of memorials to the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster of 2014, considered the most tragic accident in the modern and contemporary history of South Korea. ORP is justifying its actions by comparing them to the Sewol memorials. However, this is a one-sided argument and should not be accepted unquestioningly.

The Sewol memorials were supported by all local governments as well as the government of South Korea at that time. It is deplorable that ORP is exploiting the Sewol disaster, after which the entire nation was in mourning, regardless of political ideology, as a pretext to secure the legitimacy of its protest. Everyone remembers how ORP members claimed the families of the Sewol victims were protesting for financial compensation.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon should resolve the situation more sternly. He should take action against ORP’s announcement that it will continue its demonstrations and set up additional tents in Gwanghwamun Square. The city should also sue Cho for the 200 million won (US$170,000) it cost to remove the ORP’s tents from Gwanghwamun Square on June 25. Furthermore, if the party stages further illegal demonstrations in the future, Seoul will have to prepare laws and administrative procedures to punish it.

Gwanghwamun Square showed the international community how much South Korea citizens’ awareness had risen through the Candlelight Revolution in the winter of 2016. It was not the Constitutional Court, the National Assembly, or the prosecutors’ office, but the people who visited Gwanghwamun to participate in the protests that brought their concerns to the notice of the international community. ORP’s illegal occupation of this iconic square should end as soon as possible.

ORP, which has sharply lowered the national prestige of South Korea that its citizens have raised over the past few years, should also disappear from the political history of South Korea. It is simply ridiculous that a conservative politician and his supporters, who should consider the rule of law the most important, have shunned constitutional principles to justify their illegal actions.

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