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Seoul Metro's Ugly War with Disabled Protesters Enters Its Third Year
An update to an escalating affair
Activists from the Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD) are surrounded by Seoul Metro workers and police during a protest on Jan. 3, 2023. (Courtesy: Yonhap News)
In April 2022, I published on this blog an overview of the frequent protests held inside Seoul Metro by the disability activist organization Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD). When I wrote that piece, the protests were about six months old. The piece was published during a rare detente between the two sides after the South Korean presidential election. I concluded it saying it is “impossible to predict how this will conclude” as neither SADD nor Seoul Metro came together to resolve the ongoing protests.
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After requests for a follow-up, I am writing to you nine months later. The protests have continued into its third year. Even within my pessimistic conclusion, I was shocked to see an escalation against SADD (also known in Korean by its abbreviation, 전장연) by some of South Korea’s highest powers: the City of Seoul, Seoul Police and the ruling People’s Power Party. Starting this year, the City of Seoul have responded with “zero tolerance”, running trains through stations wherever there is a SADD protest and barricading the entrances with police with shields.
I write this update in yet another rare moment of detente. After a month of frosty negotiations, SADD and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon have agreed to an in-person discussion on February 2 with no conditions. City of Seoul representatives have called for a pause in protests until the discussion, stating “due to SADD’s subway protests, the citizens’ patience has reached its limits.”1
Tensions are high between SADD and Oh’s City Hall, and this first in-person meeting does not guarantee a breakthrough. This conflict may continue well into the year; SADD earlier this month declared they will be protesting on Metro Line 4 every weekday excluding holidays until their demands are met.2
What has happened between the nine months, and where does this conflict stand exactly?
For some transit-interested readers, the premise of this prolonged conflict involving Seoul Metro may be confusing. Seoul Metro is often touted as one of the world’s greatest Metro systems. Another confounding factor is that only 19 out of Seoul Metro’s 302 stations are lacking wheelchair-accessible elevators. So what exactly has these protesters so upset?
It cannot be understated that SADD’s demands are more holistic than just accessible Metro stations. Their demands are: more procurement of low-floor buses nationwide; fully accessible subway systems in Seoul and elsewhere; permanent allocation for transit means for the disabled; and a ‘one station, one route’ policy in Seoul Metro which allows for people with disabilities and senior citizens to move between the station platform and the fare gates without requiring special assistance. (Author’s note: the demands may have shifted slightly but I have not found anything to suggest that.)
Only one demand was briefly on the government’s table for negotiation last year. In August, the Ministry of Finance rejected SADD’s budget proposal increase for citizens with disabilities and counter-offered with a budget less than 1% of SADD’s proposal.3 Accordingly, SADD resumed its subway protests in September.
It is critical to also see SADD’s protests as part of a 21-year-long struggle, as they repeatedly stress to the media. In 2001, an elderly couple using a Seoul Metro station wheelchair lift was thrown off; one was severely injured and one died from injuries. This sparked South Korea’s first disability rights demonstrations, with activists from SADD chaining themselves to buses and trains and lying prostate on Metro tracks. SADD claims little has changed since 2001, and they are fed up with 21 years of lies and broken promises from the government.
Since the presidential election of right-wing candidate Yun Suk-yeol in March 2022, the ruling People Power Party has engaged little with SADD. Its former party chairman and erstwhile darling Lee Jun-Seok made headlines last spring lambasting SADD as “minority rule” tyranny emboldened by political correctness. Now, Mayor Oh — the next most recognizable PPP politician after Yun — is leading the charge.
A New “Zero Tolerance” Policy
On December 26, Oh preemptively declared a “zero tolerance” policy against SADD protests scheduled to begin after New Year’s Day.4 On his Facebook account, Oh wrote "There will be no more generosity toward illegality...As mayor, I can no longer overlook damage and inconvenience inflicted on ordinary citizens." (Are disabled people not "ordinary citizens", a common retort to this announcement goes)
On January 2, the first SADD protest occurred at Samgakji Station on Metro Line 4. SADD protesters on wheelchairs were barricaded from entering approaching trains with eight riot police units dispatched to create the blockade.5 SADD organizers told the press their protest plans were to board a train and leave within five minutes to avoid penalties and not disrupt train service, as mandated in a recent court mediation.
Samgakji station’s platform was overcrowded with SADD protesters, police, staff from the City of Seoul and Seoul Metro and media, and there were minor scuffles were attendees were trying to make space. During SADD's press conference, a Seoul Metro employee representing as Samgakji station’s manager repeatedly broadcasted a pre-written message ordering protesters to leave the station.6 SADD ultimately left Samgakji Station to enter another station to board a train but to no avail.
Oh’s “zero tolerance” policy against SADD riled up liberal and left-wing demographics who have been sympathetic to the cause. The left-leaning newspaper Hankyoreh editorial board wrote the January 2 debut of the zero tolerance rule was “callous” and “clearly an excessive response.” Hankyoreh also reported a mass flurry of sympathizers sharing screenshots of their donations to SADD after Oh’s declaration on social media.7
Hankyoreh also reports the elevator at Samgakji was out of service on January 2 but found no records of this elevator in Seoul Metro’s elevator repair logs. This is significant, as if true, this won’t be Seoul Metro’s first time shutting down elevators to block wheelchaired protesters. In December 2021, Seoul Metro had to issue a public apology after reports surfaced of the agency intentionally shutting down an elevator at Hyehwa Station.8
Nearly all SADD protests in January have accompanied blockades and run-through trains to stymie the protesters. The one exception was at Oido Station on January 22, on the 21st anniversary of the wheelchair lift accident which sparked the modern Korean disability rights movement. After three hours of protesting on the platforms, protesters were allowed to board a train for their court-mandated five minutes on the conditions they not use any speakers or hand out flyers.9
SADD lead organizer Park Gyeong-seok is led through a train car in a steel cage. (Courtesy Seoul Sinmun)
“We Will Pursue Justice ‘Til the End of the World”
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon’s hardline policy was not the first zero tolerance stance taken against SADD. In June, new Seoul Police Chief Kim Gwang-ho criticized the protests, saying they were forcibly “tying the feet of citizens" and his Seoul Police will uphold rule of order against SADD’s increasingly disruptive protests paralyzing Seoul Metro.
“A legal order has been established, and regarding illegal conduct, we will pursue justice 'til the end of the world,” said Kim.10
Soon the prosecutors entered the fray. In July, prosecutors from the Seoul Central District Court recommended SADD’s lead organizer and de-facto leader Park Gyeong-seok six months in prison for a 2021 protest where Park and 20 of his members forced a bus to standstill for 23 minutes during evening rush hour in central Seoul.11 In October, the first court sentenced Park to four months in prison and two years of probation; Park's lawyers appealed the sentence immediately. (Hence Park's visibility in SADD protests since.)12
At his sentencing, Park said “the protests are not illegal…the right to travel for the disabled has not been fully guaranteed, and the low-floor buses currently in use remain difficult for people with disabilities to use smoothly. This defendant was forced to inform this reality desperately and urge policies such as securing the budget (to benefit people with disabilities).”13
Twenty days prior to his sentencing, Park and 10 SADD members protested inside Seoul Metro trains during morning hours. Park, who became paralyzed from waist down after a hang glider accident, entered the trains handcuffed inside a steel cage. Despite numerous complaints from riders, Park insisted the cage symbolized the plight of a Korean citizen with disabilities — unable to join society from the imposed cage.14
SADD Representatives at the Samgakji Station protest on January 2, 2023, with one holding a five-minute timer to follow court-mandated mediation conditions. (Courtesy: JoongAng Ilbo)
Counting Time, Counting Fines
On December 19, a week before Mayor Oh’s “zero tolerance declaration”, the Seoul Central District Court issued a mediation to stop the SADD protests. The Court issued that the remaining 19 Seoul Metro stations without an escalators be installed by 2024, thus making Seoul Metro 100% accessible.15 In this first mediation adjustment, the Court issued that SADD would not be allowed to protest inside a train for more than five minutes as to not impact train service. Going above this five-minute limit would put SADD liable for a 5 Million Won (~$4000) fine.16
As seen on the January 2 protest at Samgakji, SADD organizers brought a timer prop to show they would obey the mediation. Seoul Metro and the City of Seoul, however, never accepted the mediation. On January 10, the Court issued a second mediation offer excluding the five-minute limit. Again, SADD accepted the offer and Seoul Metro and the City of Seoul declined.17 Seoul Metro rejected on the second mediation offer on grounds it would make pursuing fair compensation from SADD for damages difficult, as debt and bonds cannot be claimed.18
Seoul Metro has made pursuing fair compensation for damages against SADD a priority. On January 10, Seoul Metro filed a damages suit against SADD totaling 601.45 million Won (~$490,000) for train delays and other losses on 75 total protests spanning from December 3, 2021 until December 15, 2022.1920 This is the second lawsuit Seoul Metro filed against SADD; in November 2022, Seoul Metro demanded 30 million Won (~$20,000) in damages for protests which occurred in November 2021.
Is There An End?
In April 2022, SADD’s Park Gyeong-seok and then former People Power Party chairman Lee Jun-seok met in a 1-on-1 televised debate. The debate drew widespread interest (currently at 1.3 million views for the full hour debate).
During the debate, they began discussing the logistics of replacing current high-floor buses (“inaccessible buses”, as Park repeatedly interjects) to accessible low-floor buses nationwide. Lee asks if SADD’s request is to discard all high-floor buses now, which Park responds as impractical and something SADD never demanded.
Lee then says if there was a bill to allow for this now, it will still take five to seven years. Park reflexively says that would take 10-plus years, perhaps revealing his distrust after past broken promises. Lee soldiers on saying this is the fastest legal recourse and asks Park if SADD will be “satisfied” by the procurement of low-floor buses (as, Lee notes, his party has endorsed). Park looks for a moment exasperated and says it is not a matter of satisfaction. Even if procurement took more than a decade, says Park, there will be other buses and obstacles for people with disabilities will need to fight for.
This quick-fire moment stood out to me as a snapshot for how wide SADD and the status quo stand apart from each other. SADD’s demands boil down to more equal access in mobility and rights and dignity for people with disabilities. For Lee and the political strata, it is a mere action item to somehow stop these disruptive Metro protests. Caught in the middle, the discourse spins like a hamster wheel, focused on whether the protesters will ever be “satisfied.”
Barring a miracle between Mayor Oh and SADD in the February 2 meeting, the protests will likely continue with no concessions in sight from both sides. With Oh’s zero tolerance policy, the City of Seoul sought to stop SADD's service impacts on its critical Metro. A perhaps ominous twist for the future, the Seoul Central District Public Investigation Department has begun investigations into the SADD protests to determine the legality of these protests.21
On the other side, SADD declared Seoul can expect to see 260 total days of protest in 2023 should it last all year. All sides have dug in their heels. The situation has worsened since April 2022. Unfortunately, things may get worse before they start getting better.
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