South Korean protests fan COVID-19 fears

FILE PHOTO: A woman looks at her mobile phone next to an exit of a subway station amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at a shopping district in Seoul, South Korea, November 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea called on unionists to cancel protests on Wednesday as the country grapples with a third wave of coronavirus infections, warning any violations of social distancing measures will be punished.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) said up to 200,000 members would go on strike but protests would be limited to nine people in Seoul, where public gatherings of 10 or more are banned.

Dozens of union members joined rallies in other places that were not subject to stricter distancing, including one in the southeastern city of Changwon which was attended by about 30 people.

"There are still high risks of infections during meetings and movements before and after the protests," health ministry spokesman Son Young-rae told a briefing.

"It is important to ensure the freedom of assembly, but following rules to protect people's lives should come first under the current situation where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly."

South Korea has reported around 300 new coronavirus cases each day over the last week, prompting health officials to reimpose tough social distancing rules on the capital Seoul and surrounding regions.

Union members are protesting over provisions of a bill which would ban labourers from occupying certain facilities at workplaces during strikes.

The rallies have revived memories of a major COVID-19 outbreak following a political protest in August.

"They have said they would comply with anti-virus guidelines but it is extremely concerning given the recent spread of COVID-19," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting, vowing strict penalties for any transgressions of social distancing rules.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 382 new cases, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 31,735, with 513 deaths.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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