On March 10, 2017, after a 92-day trial, the Constitutional Court of South Korea unanimously decided to impeach former President Park Geun-hye, who was suspected of conspiring with the daughter of a cult leader, Choi Sun-sil. The former president was accused of installing those connected with Choi in the government, and of giving her illegal access to confidential documents and significant power in major decisions, helping her to exert her influence and extort millions of dollars from South Korean businesses. The Korean people saw these corrupt practices as acts to subvert the Korean Constitution and the hard-fought democratic processes established after the June Democracy Movement in 1987.

In response, the Korean people began to gather regularly in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Plaza, a historically significant location where the general population had formally voiced their concerns and requests to the king during the Joseon Dynasty. Every Saturday since October 29, protesters joined together demanding the removal of former President Park from office. On December 9, the National Assembly passed the motion to impeach Park, and on March tenth, anti-Park protesters celebrated as the court upheld this motion.

These recent protests in South Korea vastly differ from the protest movements of the 20th century, which were often chaotic and violent. In an interview with the HPR, Harvard Professor Paul Chang, who participated in the largest of the Park protests on December 3, noted that “what stood out most, other than the incredible scale of course, was how civil the protest was. Chang “saw so many families protesting together, including young children and infants in strollers. There was not even a hint of possible violence.”

Chang discussed that one of the most surprising feats of these protests was that not a single person was arrested, which highlights the significant role played by the police. Not only did Korean law enforcement steer clear of suppressive tactics, but it also allowed the protesters to assemble peacefully. This was one of the first Korean protests in which the police and the protesters were cooperative. Chang described that the police facilitated the protests by keeping the crowd moving and that some even “seemed to enjoy the gathering [as] they took selfie pictures with the crowd in the background.”  

The ability to organize a protest of this scale in a non-violent manner can be accredited to Korea’s history and experience in its fight for democracy. The April 19th Movement in 1960, the Kwangju Democracy Uprising in 1980, the June Democracy Movement in 1987, and the new commitment of the police to democratic processes have contributed significantly to creating a space for effective and peaceful protest.

A Deep History of Protests

The seeds of the successful anti-Park movement were sown by the April 19th Movement in 1960 led by labor and student groups in protest of electoral corruption. Rhee Syng-man, a Korean War hero, had been elected to be the first president of South Korea in 1948 by the National Assembly. After his failed attempt to institute a popular vote and change  the electoral process so that he could remain in power, Rhee declared martial law and arrested opposing politicians. With the dissenters removed, his constitutional amendment eventually passed, and Rhee obtained power indefinitely.

On March 15 of 1960, protests took place in Masan in response to Rhee, at which the police opened fire on civilians, leading to the death of high school student Kim Ju-yul. While the government reported that his death was due to drowning, it was later discovered that he was killed by a tear gas grenade. This news shocked the nation, and on April 19, thousands of students marched in Seoul to the Blue House—the residence of the head of state—calling for Rhee’s resignation. The police once again opened fire on the protesters, and Rhee proclaimed martial law to suppress them. On April 25, professors joined the students in protest, and when the outnumbered police refused to attack, Rhee was forced to resign on April 26. Rhee, through his false promises to step down after the end of his term, launched the beginnings of democratic change in South Korea. In his attempt to retain power, he inadvertently stirred the hearts of many South Koreans, and caused them to fight with an increased intensity for the democratic processes he desperately tried to avoid.

While the 1960 protests and removal of Rhee were the first steps away from autocracy and towards democracy, the victory was short-lived. Park Chung-hee, the father of recently impeached Park Geun-hye, overthrew the government with a military coup d’état on May 16, 1961. Park Chung-hee’s military rule in 1972 sparked the 1980 Kwangju Democracy Uprising. In an interview with the HPR, Harvard Professor Carter Eckert explains, “the Kwangju Uprising in 1980 and the democracy movements [that would follow] were movements directed against the illegitimacy of the political system as a whole, the authoritarian Yusin system erected in 1972 by Park Chung Hee.” Many viewed this system of government as illegitimate because of its weak democratic underpinnings and the lack of checks and balances; in Park’s electoral college system, the members of the college were chosen by Park and his regime.

After Park was assassinated in October 26, 1979, Chun Doo-Hwan, another military general, seized the opportunity to gain power. On May 18, Korean students, unwilling to be governed under another authoritarian military dictatorship, gathered to protest at Chonnam National University. After being suppressed and beaten by the police, more civilians joined and were also attacked. When Chun sent in special forces to Kwangju, the protesters broke into police stations to arm themselves and fought back. While the government forces were temporarily pushed back, Chun’s military forces later sent tanks to attack the city, and the uprising was immediately crushed. While protesters failed once again to bring democracy in this uprising, the event invigorated pro-democracy sentiments throughout the country, in memory of the several thousand who lost their lives at Kwangju.

In 1987, Chun’s regime announced its support for Roh Tae-woo as the next president, triggering the June Democracy Movement in another push for free elections after having endured the authoritarian rule of the previous presidents. Lee Han-yeol, one of the student protesters at Yonsei University, was severely injured after a tear gas grenade penetrated his skull, and he became the face of a powerful round of protests that followed. On June 29, Roh gave in to the people’s demands for democracy. The first democratic elections were held in 1987, and Roh was  ironically elected to the presidency due to a split vote in the opposition party. Regardless, after close to thirty years of protests, the Korean people had finally forced the institution of free and fair elections.

Park Geun-hye’s Trial: The 21st Century Fight for Democracy  

The struggle for democracy over the past 60 years is still fresh in the hearts of  Koreans.  To many, the corruption and scandal surrounding Park has been seen an attempt to subvert hard fought victories. Park Geun-hye’s trial focused on whether or not she was qualified to represent the sentiments of the general population. The main argument against impeachment was that the democracy of the country was at risk because of the “so-called” majority opinion. Many of Park’s defenders claim this charge has been fabricated by those attempting to take advantage of a politically fragile situation, and does not, in fact, accurately represent the sentiments of the country. Park’s defenders have compared her impeachment trial to those of Jesus and Socrates, and her lawyers claimed that this was the result of mob justice.

However, Yonsei University Professor Hans Schattle noted in an interview with the HPR that even Park supporters have had a difficult time defending her actions and have resorted to patriotic arguments—a similar justification that the previous Korean authoritarian rulers used. While the people at anti-Park rallies carried signs that said, “박근혜 탄핵” (which translates to “Impeach Park Geun-hye”), those at pro-Park rallies waved South Korean flags. Schattle suspects that “Park supporters can’t find any kind of slogan at this point that would convey Park’s virtues in a convincing way, so they simply wave the flag and imply that patriotic Koreans ought to support the [former] President.”

The revelations of Park’s ties with Choi have cast severe doubts in the minds of South Koreans, who, after having achieved democratic elections, have put their trust into the democratic system to select a leader who would serve the best interests of the country. Each of the protests of the past half century were aimed at achieving a system in which the elected official would best represent the desires of the country’s citizens—the April Revolution of 1960 was triggered in response to Rhee’s constant amendments of the Constitution to remain in power, the Kwangju Democracy Uprising of 1980 challenged the illegitimate political system erected by Park Chung-hee, and the June Democracy Movement was the final push for democratic elections.

In modern-day South Korea, the protesters have gathered yet again in another democracy movement—this time, with the help of the Korean National Police—to challenge the actions of former President Park. Unwilling to take a step backwards in the struggle for democracy, they have successfully voiced their opinions in a peaceful way because of the legacy of past movements. “Precisely given South Korea’s past history, it’s inconceivable that the police would be called out as in the past, [and] there’s very little, if any, support in the South Korean political spectrum for that kind of action anymore” stated Eckert. The April 19th Movement, the Kwangju Democracy Uprising, and the June Democracy movements have all contributed to the changes in the political spectrum, and in contrast with previous protests, the mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, has worked closely with the Korean National Police to provide a space for protesters to peacefully express their qualms.

For Park Won-soon and many other South Koreans, both protesters and police alike, the memory of the tragic events of previous protests is still fresh, and both sides want to avoid similar outcomes. The people have shown great restraint, especially given the outrage that was caused by impeachment, largely due to the strong commitment towards “those hard-won peaceful democratic norms to effect change,” as Eckert outlined. The police have evolved too, from an accessory for the country’s ruler to use at will, into a resource that works closely with the government to prevent violent protests, and to protect democratic processes.


Image source: Flikr / BlueAndWhiteArmy

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