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Cultural or Protest Plaza?

Posted August. 16, 2010 11:17,   


Red Plaza in central Moscow is the symbol of Russia’s history and power. Surrounding the plaza is the Kremlin Palace, history museum, St. Basil`s Cathedral and department stores, and includes a tomb displaying the mummy of Vladimir Lenin. Since the inauguration of President Dmitry Medvedev, a big fan of rock music, rock festivals are also held frequently in Red Plaza. Designated a World Cultural Heritage, the plaza is a strong source of pride among the Russian people. The Russian cultural heritage agency said, “We cannot allow certain political and civic groups to destroy cultural heritage through protest rallies.”

Such a restriction is not limited to Russia, where political freedom is not guaranteed. In the U.S., permission is also required to hold protest rallies at National Mall Plaza in Washington, D.C., where the human right activist Martin Ruther King delivered his historic speech “I Have a Dream” to more than 300,000 people in 1963. After a plan for a rally or an event is submitted, the staff in charge strictly reviews it and decides whether to grant permission. The criteria for this decision are protection of the plaza and maintenance of order. If damage to a facility, violence or activities deemed incompatible with the plan is reported even belatedly after an event, the event`s organizers are put on a blacklist and banned from using the plaza again. The rationale is that a plaza is a public place for all Americans, not just those who want to hold rallies.

Seoul Plaza is heading in the opposite direction. The plaza has been managed through an administrative system based on permission, but the system will likely be changed to one based on reporting. Previously, only leisure or cultural events for citizens were allowed at the plaza but it has become possible to hold political rallies and demonstrations there. The Seoul Metropolitan City Council, which is controlled by the main opposition Democratic Party, passed a bill on a municipal ordinance to that effect over the weekend. The council`s argument that the city must return Seoul Plaza to the people sounds rational and legitimate on the surface. If the system based on reporting is put into place, however, the plaza will turn into a demonstration venue. As specified in the reason for submission, the true intent of the new bill is apparently “to realize the essence of the freedom to assemble and protest as guaranteed under the Constitution,” at Seoul Plaza. If the plaza turns into a demonstrators’ plaza, there is no guarantee that illegal protests will not recur there after those against the resumption of U.S. beef imports erupted in 2008.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government says it will request the council to reconsider the bill. More likely, however, is that the council will approve the bill since 75 percent of its members are Democratic Party members. The number of Seoul residents who signed the bill is 85,072, but the city’s population was 10,464,051 as of last year. Even if a plaza belongs to the people, there is no public property that can be used only through reporting. Seoul Plaza should be a place not just for those who report plans to hold events and activities, but for all city residents. If the plaza, which has barely recovered its original state as a public venue, is taken over again by “professional protesters,” this will greatly inconvenience the remaining 9.92 million Seoulites.

Editorial Writer Kim Sun-deok (yuri@donga.com)