Koreans Have Mastered the Art of the Protest
South Korean President Park Geun-hye is on the brink of resignation — but her quitting won’t stop the waves of anger on the streets.
Every weekend, the crowds on the South Korean capital’s streets get larger. The wave of protest against scandal-mired President Park Geun-hye is still growing. On Nov. 26, more than 1.5 million people, in a country of just 50 million, turned out in Seoul to demand Park’s resignation despite the first snow of the season. Park, embroiled in a salacious sequence of revelations about her ties to a cult leader, is now promising to quit — maybe. But the protesters want more than just her scalp; they want an end to the opaque, authoritarian, and deeply corrupt style of governance she has come to epitomize.
It’s a stunning outpouring of political activism — but, in the context of modern South Korean history, it’s not at all surprising. Political change in that country has long involved public protests, which have featured, among other things, suicide and silly masks. Ordinary people were key in transforming this East Asian country from colony to military autocracy to imperfect democracy. For that reason, leaders and the public alike are acutely aware of the power of taking their grievances to the street — and even in ordinary times, they do it so regularly that momentous gatherings can seem entirely banal for the people involved.
“Protesting is the only way to demonstrate our opinion and power,” said protester Kim Joeun, a 24-year-old activist and Seoul resident. “Frankly speaking, I’m involved in protesting because it would be so suffocating if I don’t express these frustrations.” And when citizens like Kim speak up, it’s the Korean government that tends to feel suffocated.
Korean history textbooks speak of a king in the 1400s who placed a drum outside his court. Commoners could bang the massive drum to get his attention and discuss their grievances. Protest during the formation of South Korea as a modern nation-state has been no quieter but often bloodier.
Those same textbooks teach kids about 1919, the first time hundreds of thousands of modern Koreans put their lives on the line for their country by taking to the streets. Before then, Korea had the usual history of peasant and religious uprisings and riots, but during Japan’s brutal colonial occupation of the peninsula, nationwide protests known collectively as the March 1st Movement began demanding independence. Initially, the protests against the Japanese military and police were peaceful, but as they grew to include 2 million people, Japanese authorities responded with violence. More than 7,500 protesters were killed, a sacrifice that’s still commemorated yearly in South Korea.
The next wave of protest came against U.S.-backed strongman Syngman Rhee, installed by Washington after World War II as South Korea’s first president. A massive protest staged in 1960 following the death of a young student named Kim Ju-yul forced Rhee and his Austrian wife into exile in Hawaii, and a liberal leader was elected.
This moment set a precedent for South Koreans. With a big enough protest, they learned, they could choose their leader. “That gave people some sort of confidence that they can actually challenge the president and the government,” said Korean politics scholar Taehyun Nam, an associate professor at Salisbury University, in a phone interview.
That success was swiftly cut when Park Chung-hee, father of the current president, staged a military coup. His eventual successor, Chun Doo-hwan, also won his presidency in a military coup and an election that resulted in him winning a curious 99.99 percent of the vote. Nam described these decades as Putin-esque; rule of law was often ignored for the sake of economic development.
Protesters persevered nevertheless. Before the “election” of Chun, for instance, students and citizens in the city of Gwangju organized opposition. It became an armed uprising crushed by Chun’s military forces. Up to 2,000 protesters were estimated dead in what was brushed off as a communist rebellion. The violent quelling of the protest undermined Chun’s rule and, by extension, the trust that could be given to an unelected leader.
The Gwangju uprising, like the March 1st Movement, is a foundational event in modern Korean historical memory; Kim said it’s seen as important to many protesters today.
Millions of middle-aged Koreans still remember their time as protesters in the 1980s — stories that have prompted them, or their kids, back onto the streets today. Two Seoul residents described their memories. “My memories of youth are filled with the smoky smell of tear bomb[s],” wrote 52-year-old Seo Jeong-bin in an email interview.
Like many Koreans at the time, Seo cut work to participate in the massive 1987 protests that at last brought down Chun’s rule and ushered in free elections. Sue, a 45-year-old Seoul resident who asked to be identified only by her English name, participated in these protests as a student at Korea University.
“There were a lot of protests going on against the corrupted government almost every single day,” Sue said. “Back then, the way we protested was definitely violent.… The campus used to be full of tear gas and surrounded by armed police.”
Labor unions and students organized together, later joined by religious leaders, to march for a democratic constitution. Some threw stones — or Molotov cocktails — but the majority were peaceful, toting signs and shouting slogans. And their demands were legitimized when joined by a full coalition of “ordinary citizens, middle-class employees, housewives,” the New York Times reported in 1987.
The photographed suffering of a young man at the hands of the government galvanized those typical folk the most. Donald Clark, a professor emeritus of history at Trinity University, said the death of college student Lee Han-yeol was key in forcing the move to democracy. A record 1.5 million people mourned in the streets for the 21-year-old, who died protesting in Seoul after a police tear gas canister struck his head.
Tragically, it proved that martyrdom can lead to a success story in South Korean political reforms. The death of a protester often galvanizes folks from all sectors of society to participate in marches. When this happens, people understand that the government doesn’t value the lives it has pledged to protect and that it is more interested in consolidating its own power than improving society. The death of the young is particularly devastating, forcing even the most staid salaryman to consider his children and the government’s lack of care for them.
Although Korean leaders have had a history of cracking down on protests, they also must avoid the risk of slaughter. “Without the kid’s death, that [constitutional reforms] wouldn’t have happened, probably,” Clark said in a phone interview. “The Korean government generally knows that if you cross the line, and someone is killed in a demonstration by some overly harsh government response to public protest, that can be the end of you.”
It was one of the moments in South Korean politics where trust had been utterly eroded, like the present. Protests that engage hundreds of thousands of people only occur during those periods. And they aren’t simply rejecting the government — they’re rejecting the corporations and media that can appear to be working in conjunction to crush Koreans.
“If your institutions don’t allow for enough dialogue or the system is rigged against common people, then the only thing you can do to oppose that is to gather enough people to make noise,” Clark said.
Korean protesters (usually) don’t seek death, but they do know that a large enough protest will elicit government change. Protests since 1987 have been big on candles and creative signs, rather than Molotov cocktails, as the last few weeks have shown.
“The way we protest has truly changed a lot,” Sue told me. “Now we express our opinions in a peaceful and amusing way. You can even feel a festive mood.”
But traditions of protest leadership continue from the pro-democracy movement, led by labor unions, students, and both Buddhist and Christian religious groups. The Catholic Church is particularly active in Korean street politics. It was active during the pro-democracy struggles in the 1970s and 1980s, which eventually saw devout Catholic Kim Dae-jung winning open elections. Priests are still out on the streets today.
The anti-government stance by groups like the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice (CPAJ) can seem overly provocative to some. A South Korean priest in 2013 said North Korea would be within its rights to attack the south if his country and the United States continued to hold military exercises near the border. Brother Anthony of the Taizé ecumenical community told the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that groups like CPAJ seem to be protesting just for the sake of protesting.
Many Koreans share similar feelings about the other groups that lead Seoul’s almost-daily protests. Even in a democratic nation, the common Korean still often finds a reason to take to the streets. Anti-American sentiment has been the biggest driver of protest, particularly regarding the ongoing U.S. military presence there. In 2002, a U.S. military vehicle crushed two South Korean schoolgirls; massive protests demanded the eviction of all American troops and called for the soldiers involved, acquitted by a U.S. military court, to be punished by Korean law. Farmers, economically squeezed by U.S. imports, regularly take to the streets; up to 100,000 people in 2008 protested a reversed ban on U.S. beef imports, which were previously found to have mad cow disease.
During this time, protests driven by candle-lit vigil, speeches, and popular musicians became the norm. Young people often get especially creative. Kim tells me other college students put flower stickers on police cars that barricade protesters or make chicken soup outside the Blue House, the presidential residence.
That’s a departure from the marches, chants, and stone-throwing of the 1970s and 1980s, but the regularity of protest has provided a core of leadership, through nonprofits and personal experience, that allows peaceful mass mobilization today.
“In the traditional protest, people wear certain types of vests and slogans and shout protest songs,” said Gayoon Baek, a coordinator at the Seoul-based nonprofit People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. “The general public might think it’s too scary: ‘I don’t want to be there.’ We know it’s difficult to get general protest support if you organize it in a traditional way.”
Baek told me that the massive weekend protests against Park tend to be after-dinner activities. At 7 p.m., people can gather on Seoul’s central plaza and enjoy concerts between open-mic sessions for attendees to discuss their grievances with Park. A more formal program runs for an hour at 9 p.m., including speakers like the president of the Sewol Victims’ Association, a group formed after the 2014 ferry disaster for which Park is often blamed.
“People can enjoy protest as part of their weekend life,” Baek said.
Clowns, costumes, and singing might not seem like a protest, but organizers like Baek say it’s key to keep morale high. “We all know deep inside our hearts that if we are too serious about this issue, we will not be able to continue our struggle,” she said.
And yet, the dangers of protesting are no less real than they were three decades ago. A 68-year-old farmer was killed by police water cannon after protests last year against plans to change labor laws and issue history textbooks. The Park presidency has cracked open again the tear gas that terrorized 1980s protesters. Police typically barricade protest areas with massive busses, cutting them off from the rest of the world. Press freedom has declined (for instance, the government’s online content censorship commission has tripled corrective action measures on posts since 2011), and dissenters can still face fines.
“There’s a chilling effect,” Baek said. “People get scared to raise their voices. It creates a serious problem, which is more scary than killing people with guns.”
Just as in the past, Koreans persist against those barriers. “People, including me, get involved in protesting when they feel something’s going very wrong,” Kim said.
Park may very well resign at any moment, but those like Kim are seeking for more than just the end of her tenure. Despite stunning economic and social improvements in South Korea, Kim points out her country’s many issues — misogyny is rampant, the elderly struggle with often crippling poverty, youth unemployment is staggering, and strenuous education pushes teen suicide rates to some of the highest worldwide. And there is always the risk that Park’s successor will be just as shady. Kim concluded, “I just want to stop living like this.”
Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images