South Korea govt urges calm ahead of huge anti-Park Geun Hye rally

Demonstrators gathering during a protest calling for the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun Hye in Gwanghwamun square in central Seoul on Nov 5, 2016.
Demonstrators gathering during a protest calling for the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun Hye in Gwanghwamun square in central Seoul on Nov 5, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - The South Korean government called for calm on Friday (Nov 11) ahead of a mass rally against President Park Geun Hye - expected to be one of the largest seen in Seoul since the pro-democracy protests of the 1980s.

Police said they were planning for a crowd of around 170,000 for Saturday's demonstration to demand Park step down over a corruption scandal that has left her fighting for her political life.

Organisers say they expect up to 500,000 people to turn out.

"The government is concerned that the protest could lead to illegal collective action or violence," Deputy Prime Minister Lee Joon Sik told reporters.

"Until now, the government has guaranteed the freedom to legally protest. We hope the public will cooperate so that (Saturday's) demonstration will be legal and peaceful," Mr Lee said.

It will be the third weekly anti-Park protest in a row, as pressure grows on the beleaguered president, despite a series of apologies and efforts to appease public anger by reshuffling senior officials and agreeing to cede some of her extensive executive powers to the national assembly.

"We are feeling the weight of the serious public mood," presidential spokesman Jung Youn Kuk acknowledged on Friday.

Most experts believe Ms Park, who has just over a year left of her single five-year term, will be able to ride out the crisis and remain in office, albeit with her authority and ability to govern seriously undermined.

Opposition parties have, so far, avoided direct calls for her to resign and appear more interested in extracting more concessions from Ms Park in terms of power-sharing with the legislature.

Saturday's protest is being organised by an umbrella trade union which has appealed to workers, farmers, the urban poor, students and company employees to join the action.

According to the Yonhap News agency, police plan to deploy 25,000 officers to patrol the rally, and prevent any march on the presidential Blue House.

The two previous rallies were mostly peaceful, with a large number of families attending, including couples with infants and young children.

The last time Seoul witnessed mass protests on such a large-scale was in 2008 when around 100,000 people took to the streets to protest then-president Lee Myung Bak's decision to lift an import ban on US beef.

The scandal engulfing Ms Park is focused on her long-time personal confidante, Choi Soon Sil, who is currently under arrest on charges of fraud and abuse of power.

Prosecutors are investigating allegations that Choi, 60, leveraged her personal relationship with Ms Park to coerce donations from large companies like Samsung to non-profit foundations which she set up and used for personal gain.

She is also accused of interfering in government affairs, including the nomination of senior officials, despite holding no official position.

Lurid reports of the unhealthy influence Choi wielded over Ms Park have sent the president's approval ratings plunging to record lows.

Ms Chu Mi Ae, head of the main opposition Democratic Party, said on Friday that Ms Park should hand over the reins of all state affairs including diplomacy and defence.

"A president, who is a source for embarrassment for the people, must stay away from state affairs," Ms Chu said at a meeting of the party's top officials.