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Thousands rally against South Korea’s leader despite virus warning

Police officers move into to corral the crowd to keep them off the streets during the annual Liberation Day rally in Seoul.
Police officers move into to corral the crowd to keep them off the streets during the annual Liberation Day rally in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Thousands of antigovernment protesters, armed with umbrellas and raincoats, marched through the soggy streets of South Korea’s capital Saturday, ignoring official pleas to stay home amid a surge in coronavirus infections.

It appeared that at least several were detained after scuffles with one or more of the 6,000 police officers who were deployed to closely follow the protesters through the 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 surge in coronavirus infections.

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Municipal officials in Seoul had sought to forbid the slew of rallies planned by conservative 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.

Tens of thousands of people attend the annual Liberation Day rally in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

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 policy failures, and accusing him of kowtowing to nuclear-armed North Korea and election corruption.

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Some South Korean conservatives contend that the April parliamentary elections convincingly won by Moon’s party were rigged, although most experts see such claims as false conspiracy theories.

Some protesters scuffled with police officers who closely followed the marchers, but there were no immediate reports of major clashes or injuries.

Some of the marchers reportedly came from a church in northern Seoul that was shut down after it was linked to dozens of coronavirus infections. Health officials are planning to isolate and test some 4,000 members of the church, led by ultraconservative pastor Jun Kwang-hun, a vocal critic of Moon who frequently led antigovernment rallies over the last year.

“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.

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While announcing stronger distancing measures for the Seoul metropolitan area, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo lamented that virus 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 properly enforce preventive measures, allowing worshipers to take off their masks, sing in choirs or eat together.

The two-week measures starting Sunday will allow authorities in Seoul and towns in neighboring Gyeonggi province to shut down high-risk facilities such as nightclubs, karaoke rooms, movie theaters and buffet restaurants if they fail to properly enforce preventive measures, including distancing, temperature 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 to occupy a portion of seats at each game.

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The 166 new infections the country reported Saturday represented the highest daily jump in five months.

Protesters throw shoes at a pile of old shoes to signal their dissatisfaction at the government, in Seoul.
Protesters throw shoes at a pile of old shoes to signal their dissatisfaction at the government, during the annual Liberation Day rally in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)


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