South Korea to pull back on use of water cannons, buses at protests

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean police aim to cut back on the use of water cannons and buses to rein in protesters, an official said on Friday, a move that could eliminate sometimes harsh crowd control tactics that have led to at least one deadly incident in recent years.

FILE PHOTO: Protesters are hit by water cannons used by the police as they try to march towards the headquarters of the ruling Grand National Party during a rally against the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) talks in Seoul November 10, 2011. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

The government of liberal President Moon Jae-in, which took office on May 10, has ordered a review of how the police force approaches protection of human rights, calling for specific steps to improve its record.

The National Police Agency will present its proposal on halting the deployment of water canons and police buses to a panel that advises the government on formulating policy, an agency official said.

“I believe we will be given guidelines and direction regarding the matter,” the official said, adding that the presentation of the proposal would be made on Saturday.

The official declined to be identified because he was not formally authorized to speak to the media.

Police tactics in South Korea have often drawn criticism from local and international rights groups for being harsh and overly aggressive, often involving the deployment of more officers than protesters attending the rallies, for example.

In particular, the use of water cannons, often at close range, has been cited as endangering protesters’ safety.

In 2016, a 68-year-old farm activist, Baek Nam-gi, died in hospital after being struck by a water jet at a violent protest rally and losing consciousness in a fall.

The Yonhap news agency quoted a human rights officer of the national police force as telling a workshop the police plan to change protest response guidelines to exclude the use of water cannons and police buses to isolate protesters.

Moon this week sought an improvement in the status of the National Human Rights Commission, whose recommendations are non-binding, but he did not propose specific steps. To make the recommendations binding would require parliamentary approval.

Reporting by Yuna Park; Editing by Jack Kim and Clarence Fernandez