For the second week in a row, I stood in Gwanghwamoon, Seoul’s city center, among nearly a million protesters who had gathered to demand President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. I have seen similar scenes before in South Korea, which has a long-standing culture of protest. This time, however I was struck by sadness. There is more to the current mood than meets the eye.
I was born and raised in Seoul in the 1970s during the military dictatorship of the current president’s father, Park Jung-hee. Park Geun-hye is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal involving her longtime confidante, Choi Sun-shil, to whom she leaked classified documents and granted unseemly favors. Choi had exhorted bribes from Korea’s largest companies, including Samsung, profited from shell companies and business ventures using the presidential connection, and despite having no official position, wielded unchecked power over the inner workings of the government.
It gets stranger: Choi is the daughter of Choi Tae-min, Park’s spiritual adviser who claimed to communicate with the spirit of her dead mother (she was assassinated in 1974). It is the Confucian and Shamanistic aspect of the entire setup that remains disturbing. After all, in 2013, Park herself was elected, less because she was the first woman to run for office or a seasoned politician, but more because she was her father’s daughter, and her supporters were older voters in their 50s and 60s who felt oddly nostalgic and indebted. With the passing of time, this generation seems to have softened on the memories of Park Jung-hee’s reign of authoritarian repression and torture, remembering only the rapid economic growth that happened under his watch. There’s also residual sympathy for the daughter, as both of her parents were assassinated.
It’s worth noting how sanitized and orderly the South Korean million-man march was. Imagine a 360-degree horizon completely filled with protesters, all holding up neat signs that read “Park Geun-hye, Step down” and shouting out, in unison, “Impeach Park Geun-hye” only when ordered to do so by the organizers—a private association of labor unions, student, and civic groups. There were volunteers passing out free candles, which serve as the symbol of defiance, as well as the plastic mats for those who preferred to sit so that they would not dirty their clothes. There were many mothers that brought young children, and at street corners, the citizens took on themselves to direct traffic to prevent accidents. From the stage were the musicians of democratically selected genres ranging from hip-hop to folk, and people sang along in harmony, and at some point, the scene resembled a karaoke open mic. At midnight, the protest ended, but many stayed behind to clean up and recycle garbage. Nearby, tens of thousands of riot police were stationed for emergency, but they were merely young men in their early 20s—South Korea has a 21-month-long mandatory military service—looking meek and somewhat bored.
South Korean protests aren’t always so peaceful. In 1960, a student was killed by the police during an anti-government protest, which then caused 100,000 students to march to the Blue House to eventually bring down autocratic Lee Syng-man (also known as Syngman Rhee), the American-sponsored first president, from serving a fourth term.* In the 1980s, it was violent protests in the southern city of Gwangju as well as the later ones including the “June Struggle,” during which hundreds of students were killed, which eventually ended the dictatorship of President Park’s father. As recently as last year, an activist farmer died due to a fatal injury from a police water cannon at a protest demanding Park keep her campaign pledge to fix rice prices.
These days, public protests have become cathartic rituals. Every time the national team plays a World Cup match, millions wearing the “Red Devil” T-shirts take to the street, not exactly inspired by a soccer frenzy but rather nationalism and collectivism. These events can quickly turn political, instigated by the organizations that exploit the occasion to push their agenda.
In the early 2000s, anti-American sentiments were egged on and intensified following an incident in which American soldiers ran over two Korean schoolgirls and were acquitted. Koreans were heartbroken and came out in droves, singing Yoon Min-suk’s anthem “Fucking U.S.A.” (Most Americans probably don’t realize that Psy, the lovable showman behind the viral global hit “Gangnam Style,” was once better known for rapping a song from this era titled, “Dear America,” with lyrics including “Kill fucking Yankees … kill them all slowly and painfully.”)
The protests directly influenced the 2003 presidential election. Backed by the left, Roh Moo-hyun, an inexperienced former labor lawyer, won against all expectations. In 2009, millions congregated across the country after Roh committed suicide during a bribery inquiry. Swayed by the collective sadness though, people forgot about the actual scandal and its implication, and instead the protest became a massive Confucian rite where they bowed in tears to their dead former president’s photo in makeshift shrines. In 2011, I was living undercover in Pyongyang when Kim Jong-il, the Great Leader, died—and I could not help but notice how similarly North Koreans reacted to his death as they wept in groups, bowing to his photo at a shrine, as though they had just lost their parent.
Such a group sentiment reflects a 5000-year-old Korean heritage of feudalism mixed with Confucianism in which citizens show enormous deference to their leaders. Moreover, this small nation about half the size of California has always been dominated by foreign powers, historically China and Japan and in the modern era, the United States in South Korea and Russia in the North. Having always lived under threat of the big brother, Koreans are good at mobilizing in groups, but individual dissents are rare. Having been underdogs most of their history, they are also highly emotional in their reactions, which can be a strength as well as a weakness.
So it’s not surprising that Koreans have held onto the memories of the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster, in which over 300 high school students sat orderly in a sinking ship because they had been told by the adults to sit and wait. It is notable how the students sat so deferential to the orders of the authority, but that’s only a part of the story. The disaster has been linked to federal-level corruption involving the ferry owners, the insurance company, the Korea coast guard, and the Korean navy, none of which Park has properly addressed to the public, nor has she explained her whereabouts during the seven hours of desperation that ensued when she went missing. Rumors about what she was up to ran rampant, from a secret rendezvous with a former aide (who just happens to be Choi’s ex-husband), to Park having been indisposed at a shamanistic gut ritual, to a cosmetic surgery. That horror and sense of betrayal have stuck with the people, and now the resentment is being claimed and exploited by her opposition.
As the protesters were marching toward the Blue House, I was reflecting on all those layers of history. Perhaps it was the way people were trying so hard to be different this time that brought back the memories of the bloody history that led to this moment. The people’s anger was real and palpable, and yet it was also vulnerable to whomever in charge. It was then that I heard the organizers over the speaker: “It wasn’t Trump that won but Hillary that lost, because the American people also won’t put up with the corruption of the elite!” and “Park should step aside for a new government who won’t threaten war with North Korea!” The speakers conveniently skipped mentioning the xenophobia at the root of the American election or the fact that Trump is also a member of the elite who manipulated the frustrated masses. Besides, the South Korean political left, whose platform is traditionally pro-engagement with North Korea, rarely acknowledges North Korea’s human rights violations.
Whoever ends up behind the steering wheel in Korea, it seems to me that the real victims are always the masses, let down time and again by their leaders. Park Geun-hye, whose approval rating among her people has sunk to 5 percent, should step down, along with many key members of her abominably corrupt conservative Saenuri Party; especially now with the United States in its own turmoil after Trump’s election, the future is uncertain. During the campaign, Trump threated to withdraw the 28,500 American troops from the Korean peninsula and casually mentioned his wish to share a hamburger with Kim Jong-un. But more importantly, it’s not clear that leaders in either Seoul or Washington can be trusted or relied upon.
Replicating the 1960s revolution, the South Korean groups from many segments of society—ranging from lawyers and artists and farmers to professors—have now publically declared Siguksuhnun (Declaration of the State of Affairs) petitioning for the resignation of President Park, who will be the first sitting president to be questioned by prosecutors.*
With more than a tinge of patronizing sexism, her lawyer has asked for lenience since “before being a president, she also has a private life being a woman.” This refers to the latest revelation involving Park using a pseudonym (borrowing the name of a heroine from a recent popular soap opera) for a VIP service at a private clinic that specializes in cosmetic surgery and anti-aging treatments, which also won massive government funding and contracts. My sadness also is in recognizing this wasted opportunity of Park’s presidency, a setback for feminism in a country that the World Economic Forum ranks 115th out of 145 countries in gender equality.
Perhaps, Park will soon be gone to open door to a new, transparent leadership, but with the way history repeats itself in Korea, I am afraid to imagine what lies ahead. More protests are on the way, both the left and the right exhorting crowds, and now the left is raising the threat of Park’s declaring martial law as her own father had done to install the reign of terror, while the right has begun its maneuvers to disavow the legal proceedings against Park to put all blames on Choi. What we are witnessing is the rotten core of the South Korean democracy, whether governed by the left or the right, at the expense of the people.
But the morning after, the South Korean streets remained empty and clean, showing no vestige of the million-man march or its anger.
*Correction, Nov. 21, 2016: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of former South Korean President Lee Syng-man. (Return.)
Correction, Nov. 26, 2016: Due to a translation error, the phrase Declaration of the State of Affairs was inaccurately written as City-State Declaration. (Return.)