Gwanghwamun Square, a landmark space in central Seoul, reopened on Aug. 6 after the Seoul Metropolitan Government completed a large-scale expansion and renovation project that started in November 2020.
Given the historical and symbolic status of the square -- a venue for democratic movements and candlelit vigils over key public issues -- the long-awaited reopening of the square as a spacious park was supposed to be a welcome development for citizens.
Unfortunately, a heated dispute is raging over whether demonstrations should be allowed in Gwanghwamun Square. Shortly before the reopening, the Seoul city government announced it would form a consultation panel of experts and closely review applications for holding events in the park, considering traffic congestion and noise level in advance.
The scrutiny is aimed at filtering out demonstrations disguised as benign cultural or social events, a high-ranking official from the Seoul Metropolitan Government told a local media outlet this week.
But such a permit system for the use of Gwanghawmun Square is sparking controversy. Officials of major civic organizations claim that filtering out demonstrations is basically unconstitutional, as South Korea guarantees the rights to assemble and demonstrate.
It is not unusual for local administrations to run a permit system regarding major events in public parks in order to prevent multiple activities being held at the same time. London and Paris, for instance, have permit systems in place to minimize confusion and protect facilities in the public squares.
It is understandable that the Seoul city government has taken a firm stance for the use of the newly opened square this time. There is no doubt that the square has long been used as a place for peaceful demonstrations for democracy. However, it is also true that many citizens, especially those living in central Seoul, have endured inconveniences such as noise pollution and traffic jams due to political rallies.
A case in point is the massive rally organized by the far-right Liberty Unification Party on Monday. About 20,000 members of the party, led by the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, occupied the streets in and around Gwanghwamun Square and chanted anti-communist slogans through loudspeakers -- causing inconvenience to people. This is the very activity that the Seoul city government wants to filter out now after struggling to handle large-scale demonstrations almost every week before the renovation of the square.
Monday’s rally was particularly problematic, since protesters abused the current regulation by seeking a permit just outside of Gwanghwamun Square, and then slowly moved to occupy space within the park once the rally progressed.
Such abuse was prevalent even before the square’s renovation -- a project initiated by the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon. If other organizations use the same tactics, Gwanghwamun Square will simply revert to being a place saddled with protesters, loud noise and traffic jams.
Another aspect to consider is that Gwanghwamun Square is no longer a venue where demonstrators can voice their complaints toward the country’s leader. As President Yoon Suk-yeol moved the presidential office from Cheong Wa Dae near Gwanghwamun Square to Yongsan-gu, some citizens wonder why protesters have to hold rallies in the square, whose status has clearly changed after the renovation.
People living in Okin-dong, Tongin-dong and Pyeongchang-dong near Cheong Wa Dae tend to favor the Seoul city government’s policy of banning political demonstrations in Gwanghwamun Square, as they have had to put up with such rallies for decades.
But there are people who oppose strict restrictions for the square’s use. They argue that freedom of assembly and demonstration should be honored in public places, and Gwanghwamun Square should not be an exception.
Deciding to allow political rallies in Gwanghwamun Square is no easy task. The Seoul Metropolitan Government should weigh all the factors cautiously and adjust its policy to help the square better serve people and retain its historical significance.