Thousands of anti-government protesters, armed with umbrellas and raincoats, marched through the soggy streets of South Korea‘s capital on Saturday, ignoring official pleas to stay home amid a surge in coronavirus infections.
It appeared that at least several were detained after scuffles with police, which deployed about 6,000 officers to closely follow the protesters in streets near Seoul’s presidential palace.
There were no immediate reports of major clashes or injuries. Officials from the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency did not immediately say how many protesters were taken into custody.
The protests came as the government moved to impose stronger social distancing restrictions in the city and nearby towns following a spike in coronavirus infections.
Municipal officials in Seoul had sought to forbid the slew of rallies planned by conservative activists and Christian groups for a holiday celebrating the 75th anniversary of the nation’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II.
But a court allowed some of them to go on, citing civil liberties after protesters challenged the city’s administrative order banning the gatherings.
The demonstrators, many of them wearing masks and carrying the South Korean flag, paraded through rain near Seoul’s presidential palace, calling for liberal President Moon Jae-in to step down over what they see as kowtowing to North Korea, policy failures, corruption and election fraud.
Some South Korean conservatives insist that the April parliamentary elections convincingly won by Moon’s party were rigged, although most experts see such claims as false conspiracy theories.
Some of the marchers came from a church in northern Seoul that was shut down after it was linked to dozens of infections. Health officials are planning to isolate and test some 4,000 members of the church, led by ultra-conservative pastor Jun Kwang-hun, a vocal critic of Moon who has emerged as a leader of anti-government protests over the past months.
“We gathered together today to take back the Republic of Korea” from “criminal” Moon, Jun shouted from a stage during Saturday’s protest, referring to South Korea’s formal name.
While announcing stronger distancing measures for the Seoul metropolitan area, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo lamented that transmissions stemming from religious gatherings were now spreading more broadly across the capital region.
Churches have been a major source of infections in past weeks, with many of them failing to enforce properly enforce preventive measures, allowing worshipers to take off their masks, sing in choirs or eat together in diners.
The two-week measures starting Sunday will allow authorities in Seoul and towns in neighbouring Gyeonggi Province to shut down high-risk facilities such as nightclubs, karaoke rooms, movie theatres and buffet restaurants if they fail to properly enforce preventive measures, including distancing, temperatures checks, keeping customer lists and requiring masks.
Fans will once again be banned from professional baseball and soccer, just a few weeks after health authorities allowed teams to let in spectators for a portion of their seats in each game.
The 166 new infections the country reported Saturday represented its highest daily jump in five months.