The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Right to live in quiet

Court overrides police ban on overnight rally; law revision seems distant for now

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 26, 2023 - 05:30

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The court last week allowed the Korean Metal Workers' Union, a member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, to hold an overnight rally on the street in front of the National Assembly.

It was the first time the court had allowed an overnight open-air demonstration.

The court accepted the application by the metal workers' union to invalidate a police ban on its overnight outdoor protest. The union had reported to the police that it would hold a rally from 9 a.m. on Sept. 20 to noon on Sept. 21. But the police informed the union that it could not hold a demonstration in the time slot. They cited the rally would cause serious traffic inconvenience at rush hour and disturb nearby residents.

In May, only four months ago, many experienced great inconvenience at an unauthorized overnight outdoor rally by the Korean Construction Workers' Union belonging to the confederation. About 5,000 members occupied the streets in Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul. They drank all night, with many urinating on the streets. The area was covered with trash the next morning.

In spite of the mess the last rally caused, the court has allowed an overnight rally that is likely to result in the same lawless chaos.

In allowing an overnight assembly by the metal workers' union, the court ruled that concerns about grave traffic inconvenience were unjustifiable because rally participants would use only three of the four lanes. It is hard to understand how there could be no serious traffic inconvenience caused with only one lane left open.

The court also ruled that the freedom of a collective expression might be violated if the overnight rally was totally prohibited. However, there are many other types of expression besides an overnight rally.

In the end, the metal workers' union canceled the rally due to the rain. This proved that the rally was not as urgent as they would have had us believe.

Rallies occupying downtown main streets have become part of the daily routine. Citizens suffer a great deal of inconvenience due to frequent demonstrations, noises and traffic congestion. Freedom of assembly and demonstration is a basic right, but the right to a peaceful life for other citizens is just as important.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions employs a tactic of attracting attention by causing inconvenience to many people on purpose. It is outdated to allow for such demonstrations in an age of diverse means of expressing opinions without bringing about discomfort to others. If the court allows such late-night rallies to occur, citizens have no choice but to endure the inconvenience.

The police announced last Thursday that they would prepare a bill to totally ban rallies from midnight to 6 am. They will also seek to tighten regulations against noise at the site of demonstrations. Punishment for police line violations will be strengthened. Minimizing disruption to other citizens from such rallies is a reasonable goal.

The current law on assembly and demonstration bans outdoor rallies and demos before the sun rises or after the sun sets. The Constitutional Court ruled in September 2009 that the ban does not align with the constitution. Particularly, the court viewed the wording of "before the sun rises or after the sun sets" as not clear enough, and it told the legislative branch to revise the wording by June 30, 2010, but the National Assembly has not revised it for more than 13 years. The reason behind such hesitancy is unclear.

Affected by the legislation void for the past 13 years, the judicial branch has often taken the side of groups that reported their rally plans. The latest court permission for the overnight rally can be seen as a consequence of this legislative void.

A related revision bill is pending in the ongoing last regular session of the National Assembly, which will end on Dec. 9, but it is unclear whether the assembly will pass the bill this time, considering the pro-labor majority opposition party's negative view of the revision. In a situation like this, the position of judges, among others, must shift. The right to hold late-night or overnight rallies should not mean that it is all right to violate others' right to live in peace at night.