How a protest movement swelled to oust South Korea’s president

Peaceful demonstrations that gathered momentum last fall show how far the young democracy has advanced since bloody protests in 1987 helped end military dictatorship. They became a source of inspiration to similar movements, and to Koreans like Joseph Kim.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
In this Jan. 7, 2017 file photo, Protesters shout slogans during a candle light vigil calling for impeached President Park Geun-hye to step down in Seoul, South Korea.

Late on the night of Dec. 3, Joseph Kim was walking home to his apartment in Seoul's Mapo district after another long day of protesting. The weekly demonstrations against the increasingly reviled President Park Geun-hye had become his new Saturday ritual, replacing his old ones of going out with friends or reading about Korean politics online. This was too important – and most of his friends were doing the same thing.

A late 20-something with a wide smile and quiet enthusiasm, Mr. Kim attended every demonstration in downtown Seoul for six weeks straight. For the first one in late October, he had needed only a red zip-up sweater to stay warm. Now he was bundled in a blue parka, wool scarf, and black ski cap. Yet he still lost feeling in his toes after standing outside in sneakers for four hours.

Kim told himself he needed to buy warmer socks, but he had other things on his mind that night. President Park’s removal from power for alleged corruption seemed imminent, even inevitable. The weight of the historic moment hit him as he made his way home.

“Usually you don't feel history contemporarily, right?” he told me hesitantly, as if struggling to make sense of it. “But I felt like I was in history, that I was seeing history in the making."

If Kim had reached an emotional tipping point, his country was on the brink of a political one. One of the largest civil movements in South Korea’s history was about to bring down a president engulfed in one of the country's biggest scandals ever.

Equally significant was how protesters achieved that goal: Millions of people took to the streets demanding Park leave. The peaceful nature of the movement was evident in parents pushing children in strollers, or carrying them on their shoulders. Police didn’t make a single arrest, nor did they use water cannons or teargas.

The demonstrations were more than just an indication of how far South Korea’s young democracy has advanced since bloody protests in 1987 helped end military dictatorship; they became a source of inspiration to similar movements across the world.

“Many people are actually pointing to whether we could have regularly, weekly protests like what's happening in Seoul,” said Nathan Law, one of the student leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong who’s now a pro-democracy lawmaker there. “I don't know yet, but I hope so.”

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
Joseph Kim, front left, marches in a demonstration against President Park Geun-hye on Nov. 26 in downtown Seoul. He attended every demonstration for six weeks in a row.

A movement's beginnings

The movement emerged on Oct. 29, when more than 10,000 people marched to the presidential Blue House after holding a candlelight vigil near City Hall. Four days earlier, Park had admitted on live television that she had let a longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, edit drafts of her speeches. It was the beginning of the biggest influence-peddling scandal South Korea has ever seen, and the beginning of the end of Park’s lifetime in politics.

In the ensuing weeks the scandal broadened to include allegations of abuse of power, nepotism, extortion, and bribery. At its core, prosecutors said, was Park's choice to allow Ms. Choi, a trusted confidante with no official role in government, to exert improper influence over policy decisions and force companies to donate tens of millions of dollars to two foundations under Choi’s control. That she was the daughter of a religious cult leader only added to the drama of the scandal.

The size of the rallies swelled as more stories surfaced, and Park’s approval rating plummeted to the low single digits. Tens of thousands of people arrived by bus from the southern cities of Busan and Ulsan and on flights from the resort island of Jeju. Packs of wide-eyed students mingled with gray-haired veteran protesters who earned their stripes in the 1987 democracy movement.

Organizers estimated 200,000 people crowded into downtown Seoul on the first Saturday of November. (Official police estimates, which are typically lower, said the size of the rallies ranged from 45,000 to 500,000 people). The next weekend a million people people showed up. After dipping to 500,000 on Nov. 19 – organizers blamed the drop on overlapping protests held in regional capitals – the rally the following Saturday drew 1.5 million people.

That’s where I first met Kim.

Huddled in his blue parka across the street from Gwanghwamun Square, the heart of the demonstrations, Kim was standing with nine of his colleagues from WAGL (We All Govern Lab), a grassroots political start-up he helped found in 2015. Kim and his colleagues took turns carrying a flag with WAGL’s green-and-black logo, while the others handed out stickers with information about the organization to passersby. A few of them had brought LED candles to wave after sunset. Most demonstrators held ones made from paraffin wax that bathed the crowd in a flickering glow.

Kim was first drawn to activism in his teens, when he joined a student group that campaigned for loosening strict school uniform requirements. The campaign was Kim’s first experience in challenging Korea’s rigid and hierarchical society. He later took time off from college to work for a newly formed youth political party. Too young to run as a candidate in the upcoming legislative elections, he became the party’s spokesman instead. The party dissolved after its five candidates received less than 1 percent of the vote, but the campaign was a formative experience for Kim, and led him to meet Lee Jin-sun, a political activist who had the initial idea for WAGL. By then, Kim had found his calling in political activism.

The rally on Dec. 3 had the feel of a music festival. There were performances by some of South Korea’s most famous musicians, and street vendors sold boiled fish cakes and grilled chicken skewers. I kept waiting for the crowd to start batting around a giant beach ball. But the spontaneous chants calling for Park’s resignation, impeachment, and even arrest served as constant reminders of the reason people were there.

“My heart is pumping adrenaline,” Kim said. “It's amazing that literally here there are millions of people and we are peacefully making our voices heard.”

The demonstration that night was the largest one ever in South Korea, a record broken the following weekend when 1.7 million people took to the streets. Public outrage had surged. While Park remained defiant, opposition lawmakers soon had the support they needed to hold a vote for her impeachment.

A favored tool

Mass protests in South Korea have long been a favored tool for pushing back on everything from the US beef imports to dictatorial regimes. Some observers have taken to calling the country the “Republic of Demonstrations.” In 1960, protesters fought bloody street battles with armed police to force Syngman Rhee, the country’s founding and authoritarian president, to resign and flee to Hawaii. He was replaced by Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who resorted to martial law, torture, and execution to suppress his critics and political opponents. Pro-democracy advocates protested Mr. Park’s rule throughout the 1960s and ’70s, as well as that of his successor, Chun Doo-hwan, in the 1980s.

Then, in June 1987, violence broke out again as people took to the streets to demand free presidential elections, forcing the military government to back down. Tensions escalated after a university student was killed by a tear gas grenade that had hit him in the head. The most extreme protesters responded with rocks and homemade firebombs. Police made hundreds of arrests.

Jae-young Kim was a 19-year-old philosophy student at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul that year. As a member of the student-led movement, Mr. Kim was at the front line of the demonstrations. He was interrogated by police three times and served two months in jail. His left calf still hurts from where a low-flying tear gas canister hit.

“Before June 1987, demonstrations happened in isolated, intermittent sparks,” said Mr. Kim, who’s now 49 years old and a journalism professor at Chungnam National University in the city of Daejeon. That all changed that summer, when students were joined in the streets by millions of professional and working class Koreans. “This led me to realize the sheer power of solidarity among citizens,” Kim said.

That solidarity extended into the hundreds of protests that have erupted in South Korea over the past three decades. In 2002, hundreds of thousands protested the American military presence after a US Army vehicle struck and killed two young girls during a training exercise. Hundreds of thousands Koreans came together again in 2008, when they took to downtown Seoul to protest the lifting of a ban on American beef, first imposed in 2003 after a case of mad cow disease was detected in the United States.

Kim, who’s not related to Joseph Kim, joined the protests in 2008. He also attended three of the Saturday rallies last year in Seoul, and two in his hometown. The massive crowds reaffirmed his belief in the strength of people power. “I was once more assured that only the power of the masses, comprised of well-aware citizens, can truly change politics, and the world,” he said.

The orderliness of the protests only added to their allure. There was no need for gas masks, and no signs of Molotov cocktails or hurled bricks. Props were mostly limited to candles, flags, and placards. Protesters even cleaned up trash after they finished marching.

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution,” Hwang Ji-young, a 25-year-old protester told me in early December. She was paraphrasing Emma Goldman, the prominent anarchist rabble-rouser at the turn of the 20th century. “We're here to make the protests fun and sustainable so that we can be here every Saturday."

More tolerance

Kim Sun-Chul couldn’t have picked a better semester to be on leave from his teaching duties at Emory University in Atlanta. An assistant professor of Korean studies who specializes in social movements, Mr. Kim, who shares the common Korean surname with Jae-young Kim and Joseph Kim but is not related to either man, flew from Atlanta to Seoul in late September. When the protests started in late October, he was suddenly immersed in a social scientist’s dream.

Professor Kim attended almost every Saturday rally between October and December. He was astonished to see how peaceful the protesters were, but pointed to another factor as well.

“In 1987, the police were running out of tear gas by late June,” he said. “What you saw this time was more tolerance or lenience on the part of the authorities.”

And not only the police. The Seoul Administrative Court showed considerable leniency when it allowed protesters to move closer and closer to the Blue House. By Dec. 3, protesters were allowed within 330 feet of the compound, the closest they had ever been. Kim said the sheer size of the rallies combined with Park’s dwindling support contributed to the commitment to nonviolence on both sides.

“There is a tendency for governments to hold back their repressive capacity in the face of large protests,” he said. “From the organizers’ point of view, there was growing confidence in their own power, which meant that they didn't have to use violence.”

But behind the peaceful and festive atmosphere of the protests lies a deeper truth, says Katharine Moon, a political science professor at Wellesley University in Massachusetts who studies Korean politics.

“I look at the protests as part of Korea's political culture, because people actually celebrate it. It's something they're proud of, especially the peaceful, communal aspect,” Professor Moon says. “But I also see it as a dysfunction. The size and the vigor of these protests, as impressive and celebratory as they are and have been, are signs that institutional democracy in Korea is in shambles.”

Public discontent with ruling elites and economic policies have led to a deep loss of faith in government. In 2015, the country slipped from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in an annual report released by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The International Monetary Fund has ranked South Korea as the worst of the 22 countries in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of income inequality. And youth unemployment hit a record high of 9.8 percent last year, according to government statistics.

The wide-ranging corruption scandal has exacerbated public mistrust in government. On Feb. 28, a special prosecutor indicted Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of Samsung, on bribery and embezzlement charges of giving or promising $38 million in bribes to Ms. Park and Ms. Choi. The case has exposed the collusive ties between the government and the chaebol, the family-controlled conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy. It has confirmed what many South Koreans feared all along – that the political system is rigged against them.

All of this has led young people like Joseph Kim to call their country “Hell Joseon,” a phrase that refers to the five-century-long Joseon dynasty, whose feudal system determined who got ahead and who didn’t. In the face of a corrupt and inept government, he said it was no surprise that millions of South Koreans took to the streets. Many felt they had no nowhere else to go.

“There's a sense now that this is the will of the people at work,” says Celeste Arrington, an assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University who has closely followed the protests. “A sense that if political institutions were working as they should, they wouldn't have to protest.”

Guardedly optimistic

I caught up with Kim when I returned to Seoul on Dec. 8, the day before the impeachment vote. We met for dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant in Hongdae, a college neighborhood known for its galleries and cafes. The few tables inside were already taken, so we sat at a plastic one in a tent attached to the front of the building. Kim was guardedly optimistic as we talked about South Korea’s future over the sound of sizzling pork belly and the hum of a space heater placed nearby.

“I feel like I'm standing outside at dawn,” he said with a self-conscious laugh. “I know there will be a rising sun, but I'm not sure how the weather will be.”

Kim was once again at a turning point. He had decided to quit WAGL the previous week over mutual differences with the organization’s co-founder, and he was trying to figure out his next step. While the protests had motivated him, he wasn’t yet sure where to direct his energy. He wanted to do more writing about youth and politics. He was also thinking about establishing a new group of politically-minded young people, creating a space where they could gather and share ideas. He’s since started work on an online campaign platform for the progressive Justice Party and has shifted his focus to the upcoming presidential election.

“After the protests I grew more optimistic,” he says. “But with the election coming I’m also nervous that nothing will change. I’ve lost my trust in government over the last 10 years.”

By the time we left the restaurant it was dark and cold and rainy. The wet pavement was filled with blurry streaks of reflected neon light. We both pulled up our hoods as we walked to a nearby bus stop. Kim and I shook hands and he jumped on the next bus; I walked to my Airbnb apartment a half mile away. The next afternoon South Korean lawmakers would vote to impeach Park by a vote of 234 to 56. Kim would skip work to stand outside the National Assembly, under threatening skies, with 10,000 other onlookers. 

South Korea’s Constitutional Court upheld the vote in a unanimous decision on Friday. By law, an election to select a new president must be held within 60 days. The court’s ruling instantly stripped Park of her powers and made her South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be removed from office. It also her lifted her immunity against prosecution. Having already identified her as a criminal suspect, prosecutors can now make a stronger push for her indictment on bribery, extortion, and abuse of power charges. She could even face time in prison.

“It feels like spring is really coming,” Kim told me over the phone after the court’s decision was announced. Although he was still unsure about the future, that didn't stop him from relishing in this moment. “It feels sweet.”

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