Protesters chanting anti-government slogans and marching with loudspeakers in traffic lanes closed off for them have become a common sight on Saturdays in central Seoul in recent years.
In a country where street demonstrations paved the way for democracy, this may be seen as a sign of great strides in freedom of expression.
But complaints are growing in rally-prone areas in central Seoul, namely Gwanghwamun Square and the vicinity of the presidential office.
“We came here to have lunch, but we are now moving somewhere else because it is just too loud,” said Kim Yi-yeon, a 34-year-old office worker, Saturday at Gwanghwamun Square.
“I feel like we had Gwanghwamun stolen every weekend,” Kim said, walking away from the square with a friend.
Protesters attend an anti-government rally led by the Pan-National Alliance for Moon Jae-in’s Resignation at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, on Jan. 4. (Yonhap)
Clashes of rights
Gwanghwamun has seen rallies almost every Saturday for months, while overnight sit-ins were held near Cheong Wa Dae, also for months, posing a dilemma for law enforcement officers over which should come first: the right to protest or the right to peacefully live, rest, move and learn.
The number of rallies held in central Seoul totaled 87,425 from January to November last year, up from 68,315 for all of 2018.
Residents say the rallies and overnight sit-ins have become excessive and are causing great distress, due to excessive noise, traffic disturbances, public disorder and the violent behavior of some protesters.
“There are almost no buses running every Saturday because roads are closed off for protesters, not to mention all the shouting, chanting and music blaring from loudspeakers,” said Lee Eun-a, a 36-year-old office worker living in a neighborhood close to Cheong Wa Dae.
“The problem is that we will have to suffer from the noise and inconvenience every weekend,” she said. “Before exercising their right to free speech, they should respect others’ rights too.”
An overnight sit-in near Cheong Wa Dae led the families of the students at the Seoul National School for the Blind, located hundreds of meters from the presidential office, to file a petition for the assemblies to be banned.
The children’s right to learn is being violated due to noise from the protest, they say, because the school holds after-school sessions where students learn to rely on other senses such as hearing and smell to find their way around.
“The students are more sensitive to noise and their mobility is interrupted by the excessive rallies,” an official from the Korea Blind Family Association, who wished to stay anonymous, said. “Since the school was founded in 1913, we have never had such problems. I hope that protesters have more consideration for the physically challenged.”
An association of conservative and Protestant groups, the Pan-National Alliance for (President) Moon Jae-in’s Resignation, had held round-the-clock sit-ins for three months, causing noise from loudspeakers even at night.
Police banned their rally, but the Seoul Administrative Court invalidated the ban in a ruling last month. The court said protests should be allowed from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The protesters stopped the overnight sit-ins after the court ruling. But they gather every day on the street leading to the presidential office between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., setting up a stage and chairs each morning.
Families of students of the Seoul National School for the Blind are stopped by police officers as they hold a rally condemning “excessive rallies” that violate students’ right to learn and move near the presidential office, on Jan. 4. (Yonhap)
“We understand we should not cause inconvenience, but the right to protest must not be violated because of such inconvenience,” said Park Won-kyun, 75, who attended the anti-government rally in front of Cheong Wa Dae on Saturday.
“It is important to hold this rally in front of the presidential office for the president to hear us,” he said. “We will continue to hold a rally until President Moon steps down.”Calls for revision to Assembly Act
Calls are rising for “reasonable regulations” on rallies to seek a balance between upholding the constitutional right to protest and protecting the legitimate interests of others and of the community as a whole.
Currently, anyone who wishes to hold an outdoor rally can do so upon reporting to police at least 48 hours in advance under the Demonstration and Assembly Act. No formal approval is required.
There are some exceptions.
Rallies can be prohibited or restricted when the location is a residential area and they can clearly disturb residents’ rights to lead peaceful private lives, when the location is near schools so that they might infringe on students’ right to learn or when the location is close to military facilities.
Since the liberal Moon administration took power in 2017, the number of rallies banned by authorities dropped from 96 in 2016 to 12 in 2018.
The number of assemblies is expected to soar leading up to the April 15 general elections.
Also, a ban on rallies within 100 meters of the country’s key facilities, including the National Assembly, was lifted after the Constitutional Court ruled the clause unconstitutional in 2018. With a relevant revision having failed to pass through parliament, rallies can be held within 100 meters of key government facilities without any restrictions starting this year.
Lee Hie-houn, a professor of law and police studies at Sun Moon University, said there should be more specific noise regulations for rallies to minimize harm to residents.
“The right to protest is crucial, but the Constitution also stipulates that such a basic right can be restricted if the public good is threatened,” he said.
“A decibel limit for nighttime in residential areas should be added to the current ordinance. Just lowering the limit by 5 decibels still makes a huge difference,” he said. “Locations should be grouped more narrowly -- rather than just public facilities or residential areas -- and different decibel limits should apply as many public facilities are located near residential areas.”
Under the existing ordinance, the maximum noise level is set at 65 decibels during the day and 60 decibels at night in residential areas and areas near schools, big hospitals and public libraries. For other areas, the maximum noise level is 75 decibels during the day and 65 at night. There are no specific regulations for the hours between midnight and 7 a.m.
According to a survey conducted by the National Police Agency in August last year with 1,500 adults, nearly 62 percent of respondents called for the tightening of noise regulations.
Experts also say the protest culture needs to mature as much as civic awareness in the right to protest has grown.
“We don’t have a tradition of holding discussions and consultations to harmonize different rights -- such as the right to protest, the right to learn, the right to peacefully live -- of different stakeholders so there have only been clashes of rights,” said Han Sang-hie, a law professor at Konkuk University.
“Rather than police unilaterally setting the rules, rally organizers and residents should come together to agree on regulations and restrictions,” he said.
Police said they are working on a revision to a relevant ordinance to toughen regulations on noise levels during protests.
“We are still holding internal discussions. The direction would be to set different decibel regulations for different times to enhance protection for residents near protest sites,” an official in charge of policing rallies said on condition of anonymity.
Police are said to be seeking to add a nighttime decibel limit of 55 near residential areas and public facilities and to measure the average intensity of noise more precisely.
“It will not be a regulation unilaterally devised and we are seeking to strike a balance between freedom of speech and residents’ rights to peacefully live.”