SEOUL – The South Korean government on Friday warned the country’s main labour federation to cancel a planned rally in defiance of a ban on large public gatherings as it fought to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases and extended toughest restrictions across the country.

More than 800 members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) are expected to hold a rally in Wonju, a rural city about 100 km (62 miles) east of Seoul, calling for wage hikes and better welfare. The rally would be in violation of restrictions already in place in many parts of the country.

“The government will respond sternly according to the law and principle if a banned rally is carried out in violation of anti-epidemic rules,” Interior Minister Jeon Hae-cheol said at the start of a COVID task force meeting.

The warning comes amid criticism against the government for being lenient over a larger KCTU rally held in early July in Seoul in contrast to a harsh crackdown against a religious rally led last year by a critic of President Moon Jae-in.

The city of Wonju upgraded restrictions to the highest level effective midnight Thursday, banning public rallies. On Friday, the labour group rejected the restrictions as “baseless” and pledged to go ahead with the planned rally.

At least three people have tested positive from the union’s protest on July 3, which drew as many as 8,000 participants, demanding wage hikes and measures to prevent accidents at workplaces.

A large anti-government rally organised by a church in the summer last year was blamed by health officials for sparking a second wave of infections nationwide, and authorities cracked down on the organisers as violating public health regulations.

South Korea reported 1,630 coronavirus cases for Thursday, down from daily record of 1,842 the previous day, amid rising infections nationwide fuelled by the virulent Delta variant among the unvaccinated.

The government on Friday extended the semi-lockdown measures imposed last week in Seoul and neighbouring areas, which include a ban on gatherings of more than two people after 6 p.m.

In contrast to the earlier surge over the winter when infection was traced more to family members, transmission is now greater among social acquaintances and colleagues, Jeon said.

South Korea’s tally of infections stands at 185,733, with a death toll of 2,066, official data showed.

The vaccination rate remains low, with just over 13% of the 52 million population now fully vaccinated, while the government aims to reach herd immunity before November. – Reuters