Jang, Min-young Reporter 기자2017.03.03 19:07:58
Shock and distrust pervaded the people of Korea when the corruption scandal emerged in 2016. Allegations surrounding the scandal have been continuously gushing out since then. Angered people filled the streets as a way of speaking up. The number of participants at the first candlelight vigil on October 29, 2016 was recorded as 30,000, a number which became eight times larger by the 6th assembly. The reason why the huge crowd was able to voice their opinion without turning violent is that it consisted of responsible people, with mature civic awareness. As a result, the foreign press highly praised the candlelight vigils for being culturally advanced. However, protests in Korea have not been perfectly peaceful and democratic until recently. The protesting culture has matured tremendously through the effort and sacrifice of Korean citizens, in the pursuit of democracy.
Dreadful Road to Democratization
The first Korean democratic government was established in 1948. Despite the adjective ‘democratic,’ the government was not fully representative of the term. Its ambition to stay in power led to dictatorship and took away the fundamental rights of citizens. In response, the citizens spoke up and fought fiercely.
Rhee, Syng-man strived to lengthen his term by manipulating the presidential election, but people in Masan started protesting on March 15, 1960. The police shot and arrested protesters ruthlessly, attempting to disband the crowd, while citizens ambushed police stations and the buildings of authorities. In the process, 8 people were shot dead, 72 were wounded, and 26 people were arrested and tortured. Masan citizens were outraged upon discovering a missing protester who had died of a tear gas grenade stabbed into his eyes. They protested for three consecutive days, as rallies spread to the entire nation. During the April 19 Revolution, about 30,000 students nationwide rushed into the streets. By midnight there were 130 casualties and over a thousand injuries in Seoul alone. Despite violent oppression, citizens kept on protesting until Rhee resigned, on April 26, 1960.
In 1961, the then military general Park, Chung-hee staged a coup d'état and stayed in power for 18 years. Park strengthened the authority of the president and established the Yushin Constitution to allow autocracy and to weaken the fundamental rights of citizens. The Yushin regime did not end until Park was assassinated in 1979, after which event Chun, Doo-hwan’s army seized the government for 7 years, causing Korea to grow further from democratization once again. Chun prohibited the freedom of expression and controlled the media; music, movies, clothing, hairstyles, and many more aspects of life were strictly regulated. Citizens held numerous protests against Chun and the new army force, including the Spring of Seoul, the 5.18 Democratization Movement in 1980, and the June Democratic Uprising in 1987. The army oppressed the protesters with tanks, guns, knives, and tear gas, causing the number of casualties to rise dramatically.
On June 26, 1987, citizens enforced a peace march, which became the climax of the June Uprising. 1.3 million people from 34 cities and 4 districts flooded into the streets. Ten thousand police were deployed throughout the nation to suppress the march. Two police stations, 29 substations, and 4 headquarters of the Democratic Justice Party were destroyed or burnt and 3,467 people were arrested by the police. The Chun government finally made the 6.29 Declaration guaranteeing a direct election system and the implementation of democracy. Thanks to this tearful process, Korea was able to develop as a nation that better represents the adjective ‘democratic.’ This improvement is clearly shown in the recent candlelight vigils at Gwanghwamun Gate.
The 2016 candlelight vigil calling for Park Geunhye’s resignation started on October 29, right after the unauthorized intervention of Choi Soon-sil in government affairs was discovered. In terms of scale, the 30,000 protesters recorded on the first day was not exceptional. What was unprecedented though was the diversity of the crowd. Unlike the past protests, which were largely led by college students and peasants, the 2016 candlelight vigil involved a spectrum from children to elderly people.
The assembly has been held every Saturday and has recorded over 10.7 million accumulated participants by January 14, 2017. Because the protest has proceeded from seven in the evening, the time of assembly is convenient for people to voluntarily participate after school or work. Candlelight, used as a medium of the protest, is a symbol of nonviolent, peaceful protest. Candles portray a ray of light that penetrates the darkness suffered by the nation. It also has a huge visual impact, drawing more attention. Kim Jin-tae, a pro-Park politician, denounced the vigil, saying that candlelight is bound to be blown out when wind comes. In response, citizens arrived with LED candles or mobile candlelight applications, showing their determination.
In addition, some anecdotes reveal the maturity of the citizens. Various reports state that when the protest heated up, people encouraged a peaceful atmosphere by repeating “nonviolence.” There even were volunteers who provided free tea or coffee for protesters, to beat the winter cold. Furthermore, because of the huge crowd, the early protests had phone service disconnection problems, and telecommunication companies such as KT and SKT expanded their communication networks by as much as five times.
The festive atmosphere of the protest was another surprising aspect. Invited singers and bands brightened up the entire Gwanghwamun Gate area and united the people as they were encouraged to sing and enjoy together. One German press reported that the “festival of light where candles and concerts mingle together is a perfect example of democracy.” The Telegraph newspaper pointed out that women with strollers and people in wheelchairs also participated in the protest.
After each protest, most people cleaned up the street with trash bags they bought. There were some people who distributed trash bags for free at Gwanghwamun Gate. One of the protesters even posted a picture of a 332,000 won receipt for 200 trash bags on Facebook, with a caption “no regrets.” Furthermore, reports say that a letter from a participant of the candlelight vigil arrived at the Seoul Jung-gu Office with an empty trash bag inside. The letter said, “this is to return,” explaining that there was nothing to put into the trash bag and showing an appreciation for the people who kept the streets clean. The foreign press also applauded how clean the streets were even after an assembly of over a million people, and how unprecedentedly peaceful the protests have been. These features once more are evidence of the maturity of Korean citizens.
A clear message, no digression, mature citizenship, and willingness to endure discomfort, led the recent protests to be a tremendous success. Ordinary people, as a pivot of the nation, have a duty to correct political wrongs, whatever the state of the nation. People’s demands were clearly delivered in the candlelight vigils, without rampant screaming or cursing. The JTBC TV channel thereupon coined the expression “high citizens in a low nation.” Taking action against wrongdoings and keeping the flame of peace are evidence of a proud, advanced culture that the people of Korea should cherish forever.
The KNU Times