For all the public anger sustaining them, last year’s mass protests in Seoul had an oddly festive air. Store owners near the main rally site in the Gwanghwamun district reported booming business thanks to the sudden influx of customers. In between rallying cries and chants, protesters sang along to satirical songs with lyrics mocking President Park Geun-hye and stopped for street food at pocha, mobile tented eateries that had sprung up around the crowds. A university music club led a march with a thumping traditional Korean drum routine while throngs of families waved their candles, the national symbol of peaceful protest.
A major presidential scandal had galvanized the nation. If that sounds familiar to the citizens of the U.S.—and the world, for that matter—read on.
What began with local media investigating two shady foundations suspected of links to President Park Geun-hye had turned up the kind of political corruption so egregious and extensive that the country ground to a halt. Choi Soon-sil, a former cultist and éminence grise of Park, had been caught secretly manipulating national affairs and policy, as well as brokering what looked like exorbitant bribes from companies like Samsung in exchange for her influence over the president.
By mid-November, what had started as a modest gathering of less than a hundred people in the city center a month before had turned into a formidable wave of over a million people calling for Park’s resignation and arrest, the largest and most consequential public demonstration in recent history. Park, denying any resignation-worthy wrongdoing, had been doing her best to avoid any talk of ousting altogether.
The protests throughout November and December saw South Koreans march straight to the presidential residence, the Cheongwadae, or the Blue House. The idea was to surround the Blue House from several directions, getting as close as the law would allow, and to demand Park’s resignation; a kind of peaceful siege.
Over the course of several weekends, a long procession of banners, pickets and lights bobbing in the dark arrived at the police barricade, just a few hundred meters from the Blue House, where protesters bellowed their chants: “You have been surrounded! Park Geun-hye, surrender!” At one such gathering in November, I heard someone excitedly wondering aloud next to me, in between the tumult: “I wonder if Park can hear us?” The thought hadn’t occurred to me. I had accepted, like many others, that shouting into the back of the head of whoever was standing in front of you was the standard practice, vaguely assuming the message would get out through the media. But I had forgotten where we were.
It’s anybody’s guess whether President Park was anxiously pacing in her office, unable to drown out the sounds of a million people shouting for her arrest, or whether she was imperiously aloof, safe in the knowledge that—as one disdainful ruling party politician remarked—“candlelight eventually goes out in the wind.” Either way, Park must have heard these messages, delivered directly to her by a crowd just a few hundred yards from her residence. It must have been surreal, even a little bit terrifying, to be surrounded by a faint, invisible roar from some remote darkness, demanding you be brought to justice.
Park never came around, but the protests did eventually succeed in pressuring enough South Korean lawmakers—including many from Park’s own party—into voting to impeach her. Candlelight, as it turned out, wasn’t so easy to blow out. (Had the politician who made the remark been at the protest himself, he would have seen that most people were now sporting electric candles, peddled by enterprising vendors who knew how to capitalize on the spirit of protest.)
More impressive than the fact that the protest had convinced a good number of Park’s own party members to turn on her, however, was that the it had been largely peaceful. Apart from a few minor scuffles, there had been no altercations, no violent outbursts involving the police. For a moment, South Korea went viral, as international media marveled at the feat.
Protests are meant to be profoundly emotional experiences
In one minor incident, a man hoisted himself onto police bus and began to shove the officers on the roof. Protesters, in response, chanted “peaceful protest.” As policemen filed past, protesters clapped and offered words of encouragement, most likely aware that many riot policemen in South Korea are as young as 18 or 19, doing their mandatory two year military service. When the rally had ended, participants stayed and cleaned up the streets.
Such an outcome could have been a surprise to some. With a long history of protesting, South Korea has had its own fair share of violent standoffs between protesters and riot police. In a highly publicized incident from 2015, a farmer named Baek Nam-ki died after being blasted by a water cannon at a protest against the Park government. Many of his supporters had been present at the recent protests, too, mourning him with a somber funeral procession.
Protests are meant to be profoundly emotional experiences. They give public consensus a face, and political participation a physicality and vivid emotional texture. Perhaps that is the source of their power, and why they are often so combustible.
Why this one wasn’t marred by violence probably had to do with a number of things. The Park administration may well have been on its toes, eminently aware that another protest-related death would quicken its undoing. Or maybe the sheer force of anger at government corruption and the helplessness felt by ordinary South Koreans had finally boiled over and magically crystallized into a kind of transcendent clarity of purpose and determination.
Much of it, however, had to do with the festive atmosphere. It wasn’t necessarily that there was anything to actually celebrate (there wasn’t), but so many people had brought their young children and families, so many elderly men brought out their rice wine and drinking friends, and so many high school students were out in their school uniforms that the idea of violence seemed out of the question. The crowd was too normal, too true to life, defying the kind of mob mentality that leads to violent conflict, or the dismissive caricatures that can deflate a political movement. It would have been singularly difficult to label these protesters as leftist rabble-rousers, riotous youths or pro-North Korean communist sympathizers.
My father, who in his youth protested against the oppressive Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship in the 1980s, noted cheerfully how much more peaceful these protests were in comparison. Although he hates crowded places now, he went dutifully, with my mother, to each of the weekend rallies. When he demonstrated against the government as a university student in Seoul in the early 80s, he had been hit with tear grenade shrapnel, which has left a small, faded scar on his wrist. This time, he came back with a souvenir: one of those wind-proof electric candles.
By Dec. 31, 2016, a total of ten million South Koreans had successfully rallied together peacefully, unseating the president and compelling a special prosecutor’s investigation into the scandal. Stripped of presidential authority, Park has yet to meet her final fate. Prosecutors are currently untangling the mess she has left behind, pinpointing dirty money trails and bribery connections. If found guilty in court, she faces significant jail time.
The prospect of a corrupt leader suffering such an ignominious downfall at the hands of the people undoubtedly appeals to many angry Americans, who are organizing their own protest against president-elect Donald Trump. If nothing else, South Korea’s example illustrates that a nation’s leaders can only ignore the spirited shouts, songs and drum beats of its citizens for so long before it inspires a strange and wonderful kind of momentum. Sometimes, it can even depose a president.
Top image: Teddy Cross