SEOUL: The barricade rose under the cover of darkness, a 1.6-kilometre wall of tough polyurethane and bulletproof glass transforming South Korea’s largest mall and convention centre into an imposing fortress.
As workers scurried to apply the finishing touches, the two-metre high security fence surrounding Seoul’s Group of 20 economic summit resembled something more appropriate to repressive North Korea.
The wall encircling the COEX convention and exhibition centre in Seoul’s fashionable Gangnam district is designed to offer peace of mind to foreign dignitaries converging here for two days of meetings, which started last night.
Similar barriers have been set up at past economic summits in London, Toronto and Pittsburgh in the face of frequently violent demonstrations.
The barrier has been heavily criticised in Seoul. Some call it the Korean Peninsula’s newest DMZ, a formidable fence separating capitalist strategists from those staging rallies outside.
By noon yesterday, a middle-aged woman had tried to set herself on fire outside the centre. Later, tens of thousands had gathered in protest.
The woman poured paint thinner over herself outside the main entrance to the COEX convention centre but police stopped her from lighting the liquid.
”It just sends the wrong message,” a former MP, Jang Sung-min, said of the barrier.
”It reminds me of our country’s dark days of military dictatorship.”
”It’s a barrier to keep South Korea outside the conference,” said a Seoul G20 spokeswoman, Sohn Jie-ae.
”It’s not something security people want to talk about – a necessary evil.”
The wall is one of three summit barriers to be erected in Seoul. There is also a ”second line” green barbed-wire fence as well as a ”third line”.
Additional security includes anti-terrorism guard posts and a secret state-of-the-art system that one South Korean newspaper said can ”detect possible terrorist suspects who have even had plastic surgery to change their faces”.
Moreover, 60,000 security forces will be on hand to help handle the hundreds of activist groups that have applied to stage protests. Experts point to ample rationale for the tight security.
North Korea has ridiculed Seoul’s security concerns. Its state-controlled news service called them ”a childish farce”.