Ghosts Assemble for Freedom in South Korea

By Tom Rainey Smith Seoul, South Korea,

Tom Rainey Smith, a campaigner for Amnesty International Korea, explains the thinking behind a recent ghoulish protest he organized in downtown Seoul. 

Demonstrations are a regular sight in this city. It is not uncommon to see tens of thousands of people gathered in front of City Hall, or marching through the city centre to voice a collective demand. It was after all on these very streets that democracy was fought for and won with people power, successfully toppling a military dictatorship in the 1980s.

It was after all on these very streets that democracy was fought for and won
Tom Rainey Smith

So it has been disheartening to see public assemblies being met with increasing police force and subject to a number of restrictions in recent years. Most noticeably, under current President Park Geun-hye, there have been, in the last two years, increasing restrictions on assemblies near the presidential Blue House. 

Police have not only been slapping bans on public assemblies, but also increasingly resorting to the use of bus barricades, water cannons and chemical irritants. This has made it much harder for South Koreans to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and has had a chilling effect on the public making their voices heard.

South Koreans "protestors" filmed against a green screen South Koreans "protestors" filmed against a green screen
Participants in the "ghost" protest in the studio to be filmed

Capturing the public’s imagination

As the police have started framing largely peaceful assemblies as illegal and violent even before they had taken place, we knew we needed something creative to bring across our message that freedom of peaceful assembly is a right rather than a privilege, while also capturing the public’s imagination. Our question was how we could organize an event that would allow members of the public to freely participate under the current climate. 

Impressed by how Spanish activists had used holograms on the streets of Madrid last year to protest a restrictive “gag law” restricting assemblies around government buildings, we decided to try our hand at holding our own holographic protest in central Seoul. As the freedom to peacefully protest was fast disappearing, we decided we had little choice but to try something different. We rolled into action. 

First, we put word out online and through social media that we will be hosting a “ghost” protest calling on the government to respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and invited the public to participate. People could do so by either coming into a studio to be filmed, sending to us a voice recording, or texting us a protest message. The response was fantastic! We received numerous voice recordings and over 130 text messages. More than 120 people also joined us in the studio to be filmed marching, dancing, singing and chanting against a green screen. Their recorded images would go on to make up the “phantom” protestors at our march. 

March of the “phantoms”

Holographic projections of "protestors" against Seoul's ancient Gyeongbok Palace Holographic projections of "protestors" against Seoul's ancient Gyeongbok Palace
The "ghost" protest taking place against the backdrop of Seoul’s ancient Gyeongbok Palace

On the evening of 24 February 2016, we gathered with a huge entourage of press members and spectators curious to see the march at one of the city’s most iconic locations. At 8:30 pm, against the backdrop of Seoul’s ancient Gyeongbok Palace, the “protestors” finally took centre stage. The images and messages we had received from the public were projected onto a large screen erected in the square, taking on ghostly forms

Some journalists even joked they were surprised not to see holographic water cannons from the police
Tom Rainey Smith

Prior to the event, police had banned our application to hold the protest closer to the presidential Blue House, forcing us to choose a new location near the old palace. They had also warned that if anyone physically present decided to chant on the day, they would respond firmly. Given this, some journalists even joked they were surprised not to see holographic water cannons from the police monitoring us closely at the scene. They have also since started looking for ways to prosecute similar uses of holograms in future.

Members of the press and spectators look on as the "ghost" protest takes place Members of the press and spectators look on as the "ghost" protest takes place
Members of the press and curious spectators gather to watch the ghostly protest

While it was definitely a unique experience organizing such an unusual protest, we of course would rather this be the last protest where humans have to be replaced with virtual ones. To this end, we will continue to call on the South Korean authorities to live up to the spirit and letter of international human rights law and the Constitution, and guarantee South Koreans our right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

South Korea: Country Overview