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Yoon vows stronger protection of police in cracking down illegal rallies

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : May 23, 2023 - 15:01

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Citizens pass by KCTU construction union members who rest after participating in the general strike the previous night at Cheonggye Plaza in Jung-gu, Seoul, on May 17. (Yonhap) Citizens pass by KCTU construction union members who rest after participating in the general strike the previous night at Cheonggye Plaza in Jung-gu, Seoul, on May 17. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday vowed to enhance protection and authority of law enforcement officials, while strongly criticizing large-scale protests by unionized workers as disruptions to public order.

Citing the massive rally of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions last week as an example, Yoon said during a livestreamed Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, “It will be difficult for the people to accept the behavior of a protest that violates the public’s freedom and basic rights and disrupts public order.”

Last week, downtown areas in Seoul near Gwanghwamun and City Hall experienced significant traffic congestion due to a large-scale rally organized by the KCTU and its affiliated construction union. The protest aimed to commemorate the late Yang Hoi-dong, a union member who set himself on fire before the substantive examination of the arrest warrant while being investigated for extorting 80 million won ($60,000) from a construction company. The union claimed that the government’s efforts to eradicate so-called “construction violence” is “labor oppression.”

Yoon blamed the former Moon Jae-in administration, saying it virtually gave up on invoking law enforcement for illegal assemblies and illegal demonstrations. This has resulted in a situation in which the public has to endure inconveniences such as loudspeaker noise and road occupations, he said.

“Our constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and demonstration, and I, as the president, have respected this,” Yoon said. “However, guaranteeing freedom of assembly and demonstration does not mean that the act of violating the freedom and basic rights of others or disrupting public order is justified.”

He promised to “strongly support and protect law enforcement officials” who faithfully fulfill their duties so that they do not suffer disadvantages from lawbreakers.

The remarks appear to mean that he will come up with legal and institutional measures to prevent the police from being punished criminally or held liable for civil damages when controlling illegal protests, according to regulations and procedures.

“If the law is not followed, good citizens and the socially underprivileged are bound to suffer,” Yoon said, urging the police and related public officials to strictly enforce the law against illegal acts.

On Monday, the ruling People Power Party and the government announced that they would promote the revision of the Assembly and Demonstration Act, with the main goal of banning nighttime assembly and strengthening the immunity clause for the execution of police duties.

Revisions to the act are expected to include a new exemption clause that clarifies the prohibition of assembly and demonstrations from midnight to 6 a.m. and eases the standards for using physical force in the police response process. In addition, a policy strengthening regulations to reduce noise damage is also slated for inclusion.

In the Cabinet meeting held a day after Yoon wrapped up a week full of diplomatic engagements, the president said he will also work toward joining forces with the international community to deter North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

He also stressed the need to bolster trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan after his brief meeting with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Greoup of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan, last week.

Yoon added that he has laid the foundation for stronger economic cooperation with G-7 countries to stabilize supply chains, secure critical minerals and develop cutting-edge technologies in the semiconductor, battery, biotechnology industries.

The president emphasized that nuclear energy is the most powerful and efficient green energy source if used scientifically and safely. His administration is working on forging partnerships with other nations for South Korea's energy transition, which recently U-turned from nuclear power phase-out policies once pushed by his liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in.