Protests amid pandemic
The pandemic assumes strange forms under strange conditions. No one knows who will be next to catch the bug. It’s difficult to criticize the rules set forth in Korea for making as sure as humanly possible that COVID-19 won’t spread. For the second time this year, I’ve been quarantined for two weeks at my place in Seoul, under orders not to leave for so much as a cup of coffee or a stop at a convenience store.
This time, though, the system was slightly different from when I got here in April. Rather than test me at the airport on arrival and send me overnight to a youth hostel that the government had taken over for those awaiting test results, I was free to go home with instructions to get tested at the local health center within three days. A large special taxi had to whisk me there and back, for a rather hefty fee. The driver was shielded from the passenger by plexiglass, and I was warned not to get any ideas about straying on the way to or from the center.
I knew the system was working when an app installed at the airport, as on my previous arrival, flashed a message shortly after I got to the center. The wording was clear: You have left your address.” In other words, if you think you can simply walk out the door for no good reason, you’ll be in trouble. Some people have gotten around the rule by leaving their phone at home before going out.
Not a good idea. Watchful neighbors have been known to report the miscreants, leading to fines, jail time and, in the case of foreigners, expulsion from the country. I, of course, promptly messaged that I was in the center getting tested. No, I would not join those clamoring that the whole process is an infringement on basic liberty, freedom of movement, maybe free speech too.
The question gets tougher to answer, however, when it comes to mass rallies. The issue here is what takes precedence, personal or political freedom or anxiety about the bug.
The answer is not simple. Is there really a need for scores of buses, backed up by thousands of policemen, to stop mass movement into central Seoul? And how zealously should the police block small groups of demonstrators, many quite elderly, all social distancing and wearing face masks, determined to meet and shout slogans before getting tired and going home?
The police would appear to have overstepped their authority by seizing some of the flags that protesters were carrying. Many were waving the “Taegukgi,” the national flag, not just a proud symbol of Korean heritage and nationality but also of allegiance to conservative extremism.
The Taegukgi people have long stood out as right-wingers protesting what they consider the leftist outlook of the government of President Moon Jae-in. Aging military veterans, often wearing their old uniforms, also like to wave American flags to show their support for the Korean-American alliance, formed soon after the Korean War in which U.S. forces rescued the fledgling Republic of Korea from North Korean invasion.
Whatever the police do, whoever issues the order to stop the protests is going to be criticized as too severe or too weak. Freedom is difficult to define or categorize by rules and regulations. What do you do, for instance, about “car parades” or even “bus parades” in which activists would love to careen around the city, their loudspeakers going full blast? As long as they’re in moving vehicles, can they harm anyone? That’s a tough one. They may attract attention, but they also block traffic and draw crowds standing unhealthily close together.
And then there are religious leaders. As impassioned messengers of the Lord, they believe they have a higher cause than simple political demonstrators. The congregations of some of Korea’s churches rank among the biggest in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Korean Christians, Protestant and Catholic, would like to go to church every Sunday but are warned to stay away. Many, impassioned in their beliefs, would prefer to ignore the warnings. Some evangelical sects may seem extreme, but mainline denominations also attract believers who place full faith in the power of prayer. Preachers and pastors, priests and ministers have pulpits from which to spread the Word, doing “God’s work.” Hopefully their prayers will be answered and they will be saved.
—The Korea Times