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[Editorial] Revive law enforcement

Police officers should be exempt from liability for fulfilling duties

May 25, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

President Yoon Suk Yeol slammed the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions on Tuesday for its overnight street rally last week. Yoon said its actions infringed on people‘s freedoms and disturbed the public order. He said that his government would not neglect or tolerate any form of illegal action.

The ruling People Power Party and the government on Wednesday held a meeting on the issue of establishing the public order. They decided to consider banning rallies from midnight to 6 a.m., strengthening regulations on noise and restricting rush-hour downtown rallies. The party is said to consider adding liability exemption clauses for police officers who are carrying out law enforcement duties.

These measures aim at preventing the recurrence of the illegal occupation of downtown Seoul by members of the Korean Construction Workers‘ Union affiliated with the confederation. The Yoon administration set the right course. Considering the confederation has staged many unauthorized assemblies so far, the steps should have been taken years ago.

The recent rally by the construction workers' union showed an incapacitated law enforcement.

About 25,000 union members held an authorized rally in the Gwanghwamun in downtown Seoul on May 16. They were supposed to disperse at 5 p.m., but they did not under the pretext of joining a memorial ceremony for victims of the Halloween crowd crush, which took place on the same venue. They occupied all of the vehicle lanes and sidewalks in the area, causing serious traffic congestion and noise. Their assembly lasted until dawn the following day.

The scene of their assembly was unbearable to witness -- pavements littered with garbage, drunken union members sleeping in the open, and some of them even urinating in public. The following day, early-morning commuters had to put up with the garbage and the smell they left behind.

A bigger problem is that police officers just looked on. They even seemed to keep a night watch for the union members while they slept on the street.

Law enforcement against an unauthorized assembly of labor union members has been neutralized by the Moon Jae-in regime, which established guidelines on the police response to demonstrations.

The Police Reform Committee under President Moon recommended the police should not break up an assembly for reason of a minor illegal act and should refrain from suing demonstrators even if they cause harm to the police.

The Supreme Court convicted a police officer who had commanded a crackdown operation on the illegal occupiers of a SsangYong Motor factory. The Moon administration pardoned those who had been convicted in connection with demonstrations that delayed the construction of a naval base on the island of Jeju.

The police duty of disbanding unauthorized assemblies effectively became punishable. In this situation, it is hard to blame police for playing it safe and avoiding confrontations with demonstrators. Liability exemption clauses could induce the police to respond more actively to illegal demonstrations.

Of course, the existing law on assembly and demonstration invests the police with the right to break up an unauthorized rally by force. Also, the act on police officers’ performance of duties exempts police officers from criminal liability or extenuates criminal liability unless they commit gross negligence.

Clauses matter, but more important is instilling the conviction among police officers that they will never be punished nor disadvantaged for carrying out their duties, regardless of who is in government.

It should be normal to crack down on demonstrators if they cross police lines, occupy vehicle lanes illegally, turn up the volume of loudspeakers beyond a statutory level, and refuse to disperse after the scheduled time.

Naturally, the guidelines established by the Moon administration must be scrapped.

Freedom of assembly and demonstration should be guaranteed, but no group must be above the law. Enforcing law against unauthorized demonstrators is not suppression, but the rule of law. Not doing so is a dereliction of duty.