A Time For Protest

January 21st, 2017

Protesters gather in front of the former Provincial Office in downtown Gwangju

A Time for Protest
Written by Cara Mooney, ETA 2015-17

The world is watching South Korea. I am watching too.

Politics has saturated into my daily life in South Korea. It comes in snippets of news I hear from taxi radios and public televisions. It filters through whispers in the gyomushil (교무실, faculty room). I see it in the impertinent remarks made by students attempting to be funny. It is carried over the beat of samulnori (Korean percussion music) down the street and the angry call to action from truck-mounted loudspeakers…

Since October, 2016, the country has been rocked by a political scandal over President Park Geun-hye’s connection to Choi Soon-sil, a woman without security clearance or any official position, who was found to be secretly giving counsel to the president and had access to presidential and government documents.

Already, it has come to light that Choi Soon-sil was found to have used her clout and influence to extort ₩77.4 billion (around $60 million) from Korean chaebols (large business conglomerates), embezzle money from two of her foundations, in addition to rigging the admissions process at Ewha Womans University so that her daughter would be accepted. There is a palpable sense of betrayal and rage against the government and President Park for colluding with her confidant, Choi Soon-sil.

Placards reading 당장 내려야 (Step down now!) and 박근혜 퇴진 (Park Geun-hye Resign!)

Following this news, protests rapidly sprung up across the country, with the largest protests being organized in Seoul. With approval ratings for the president below 4%, massive demonstrations have continued to grow in size for the sixth straight week in a row. The most recent protests on Saturday, December 3rd proved to be the largest rally in South Korea’s history with organizers estimating over 2 million people on the streets in Seoul alone. Police put that figure around 350,000, a still remarkable number. President Park Geun-hye said on November 30th that she would allow the National Assembly to determine her fateand only hours ago, the vote was passed to

The entire country has waited for this moment and shown it through their resilience, activism, and dedication that has culminated in immense demonstrations. By and large, these protests have remained very peaceful, captivating the international community. However, South Korea has not been known for their peaceful protests. Police and demonstrators have clashed in the past, with police turning powerful water cannons and pepper spray on demonstrators. In April of 2014 following the sinking of MV Sewol Ferry, South Korea’s worst maritime disaster, strings of protests erupted across the country, with many turning violent. In recent protests, many demonstrations have been led by the people who lost family from Sewol. They are calling not just for her resignation, but her arrest.

As a Fulbright Korea ETA, I feel like I am experiencing an incredible time in Korea’s history. I live in Gwangju, the heart of the political left of South Korea. Even before President Park was elected, the North and South Jeolla regions have always pulled left, favoring the Democratic Party, a social-liberal political party, in opposition to Park Geun-hye and the Saenuri Party.

I have seen the impressive protests in Seoul twice now, and although they dwarf the protests in any other city, I feel they lack a spirit that I find when I stand among the crowds in Gwangju. For those unfamiliar with this southern city, it was the place of the infamous and tragic May 18 Democratic Uprising in 1980. Also known as the Gwangju Uprising, it was a mass protest against the then national military government. It was brutally repressed, with the official death toll at 170 (unofficial estimates range as high as 2,000), many of whom were college activists. While the Uprising was unsuccessful in bringing about democratic reform in South Korea, it is often considered a pivotal moment in the country’s struggle for democracy.

May 16th, 1980 – days before the Uprising – university students protested by lighting torches in the fountain of the square in front of the Provincial Office, known as the ‘Torchlight March’ (횃불데행진). In the moving video above, modern protestors emulate this by lighting torches in the same place as years before. [Image from the UNESCO Memory of the World Gwangju 5.18 Archives]

Once again, people fill the square in front of the former provincial office, where the Uprising and subsequent massacre occurred. Standing in the throngs of protestors, there is a pulsing energy; a tangible emotional charge. A strange feeling grips me as I stare across the sea of heads. All of the protests have retained an almost concert or festival-like atmosphere: street vendors dole out food and toys, and entire families–babies in tow–lay out picnic blankets along with their banners and flags. Protest organizers pass out candles, plastic placards, and seat cushions. Everything is a whirl of colors and candles numerous as stars. It is difficult to not get wrapped up in the chorus of “Park Guen-hye out!” or not to feel moved by the impassioned voices of orators and singers.

 

The main street in Gwangju filled with protesters.

Relatively new to democracy, the Korean people are still struggling to get the government they deserve. Their anger has been pointed towards improving the country, and through peaceful, cohesive demonstrations, they have come so close to realizing their goals. In a year of political controversy, strife, and increasing violence and discrimination, I feel like I have stood witness to something greater than a simple protest. It gives me hope that people everywhere can unify under our own banner for positive change.


All photographs © Cara Mooney 2016