SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Amid concerns over a resurgence in Covid-19 cases, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has decided to prohibit all rallies planned to take place in the capital around the Aug 15 Liberation Day.
It recently notified civic organisations of the decision, expressing worries over the possible spread of the infectious disease through large crowds expected to throng at the planned demonstrations.
So far, 21 conservative and liberal civic groups have reported to the police about their plans to hold a total of 127 rallies around the capital from Aug 14-16. About 115,000 people are expected to attend the planned gatherings.
It is worrying that almost all the organisations seem determined to push for their planned rallies in defiance of the ban issued by the city government.
What emboldens them is authorities' failure to cope sternly with a massive rally held by a major umbrella labour group in downtown Seoul early this month in direct breach of disease control rules.
Around 8,000 members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) took part in the July 3 event aimed at demanding a revision to the labour law, despite authorities' repeated calls to cancel it given the protracted pandemic.
Most of the demonstrators wore masks but stayed close to one another and chanted slogans throughout the street rally, which lasted nearly two hours.
Stern measures to ban the rallies planned for mid-August - a stark contrast to the lukewarm response to the demonstration held by the labour group - are likely to prompt strong repercussions from the civic groups.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Sunday it had issued an administrative order for all participants in the July 3 rally to take coronavirus tests and asked the labour organisation to submit a list of attendees.
The measure came only after at least three KCTU members who attended the rally tested positive for Covid-19 last week. Experts raised questions about the effectiveness of conducting tests after the virus' maximum incubation period of two weeks has passed.
The failure of preemptive tests on participants in the labour rally seems to have contributed to a spike in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, particularly driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
On Monday last week, the government placed the capital and areas in its vicinity under the strictest level of social distancing rules for two weeks, under which only one-person demonstrations are permitted.
Police have also dragged their feet on investigating those involved in organising the illegal rally. It said Monday an investigative team had booked 23 KCTU members for allegedly violating quarantine regulations without summoning or arresting any of them.
Authorities' lukewarm response to the labour rally apparently reflects the reluctance of President Moon Jae-in's administration to take a tough line against the KCTU, which was a main support base for Moon during his 2017 presidential campaign.
It is in sharp contrast with the swift and stern manner with which they dealt with an anti-government rally organised by conservative civic groups on last year's Liberation Day.
All participants in the rally were identified through phone call logs, records on credit card payments and security camera footage, and the organisers were arrested and indicted.
Mr Moon criticised the rally held by conservative groups for posing a clear challenge to the state quarantine system and being an intolerable act threatening people's lives. But he stopped short of directly criticising the labour demonstration, just asking for stern legal measures against acts in violation of quarantine rules.
The KCTU has blamed the government for trying to shift its responsibility for the failed Covid-19 response to the organisation. It plans to push ahead with a rally scheduled for this weekend in Wonju, Gangwon Province, which is expected to be attended by about 1,200 members.
The labour group should refrain from holding massive rallies amid the pandemic and let all participants in the July 3 event take virus tests while submitting their list to authorities.
Other civic groups are urged to cancel their plans to hold rallies on the upcoming Liberation Day despite their reasonable complaints about the government's discriminatory attitude.
The Moon administration needs to recognise what is seen as its politicised implementation of quarantine rules will hamper efforts to bring the pandemic under control.
- The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.