Govt calls for calm on eve of Seoul protest

Organisers of anti-Park demonstration expect as many as a million people to turn up

SEOUL • The South Korean government yesterday called for calm on the eve 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.

"The government is concerned that the coming rally may perhaps turn violent and illegal, damaging a healthy space for expressing views," Dr Lee Joon Sik, the Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs, told reporters yesterday.

"It is a turbulent time for South Korea with North Korea's missile threats, and uncertainties growing in the world economy following the results of the US presidential election," Dr Lee said.

"At such times, it is of the utmost importance for citizens to overcome difficulties together. Please cooperate to uphold a mature and peaceful protest culture."

Organisers expect as many as a million people to join the demonstration starting at a central Seoul square just 1km from the Blue House.

Thousands of chartered buses are expected to take residents from other parts of the country to the rally, which is expected to be the largest candlelight vigil ever to be held in local history.

Police anticipate some 170,000 participants, which would still far exceed the turnout of the 2008 protest against then President Lee Myung Bak's decision to resume US beef imports. At that time, the police tally was 80,000 against organisers' claim of 700,000.

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 yesterday.

Observers say today's rally could be a watershed moment for Ms Park as an influence-peddling scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon Sil continues to snowball. Ms Park's approval rating remained at an all-time low of 5 per cent for a second week, according to a Gallup Korea poll released yesterday.

The presidential Blue House yesterday denied renewed rumours that she underwent plastic surgery on the day the ferry Sewol sank in what became the nation's worst maritime disaster on April 16, 2014.

More than 300 people died in the incident. Ms Park did not make a public appearance until late in the afternoon that day.

"After checking directly with the President, I tell you those rumours are totally groundless," Mr Jung told reporters.

"The Presidential Security Service has confirmed that there is no record of a visitor or any hospital-related vehicle entering the premises," he added.

South Korean media reported this week that a plastic surgeon from a cosmetic surgery clinic that Ms Choi frequented was visiting the Blue House to see Ms Park regularly. Another report said the doctor surnamed Kim had performed Botox treatment for the President on the day the ferry sank.

Mr Jung said the plastic surgeon went golfing in Incheon on the day of the disaster. Earlier this week, the doctor displayed a receipt as evidence that he had paid greens fees on that day.

BLOOMBERG, KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2016, with the headline 'Govt calls for calm on eve of Seoul protest'. Print Edition | Subscribe