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What does it take to peacefully remove a democratically elected president from power? In this brave new world of fake news on Facebook and post-truth politics on Twitter, it was traditional forces of resistance and dissent—idealistic students, intrepid journalists, invigorated parliamentarians, and outraged urbanites—who launched a revolution in Korea.
South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution started over the summer of 2016 in the old-fashioned way: with on-campus activism. Students at Ewha Womans University had been protesting the administration over what they called “unilateral and undemocratic” policies when their ire turned to a specific case of injustice. They learned that the university illegitimately admitted a student solely because her mother was Choi Soon-sil, friend of Korean president Park Geun-hye. The administration stonewalled the students but they refused to give up. Finally, when faculty decided to join the students, the beleaguered university president announced her resignation. It seemed, at the time, like an isolated incident, a small victory for justice. In fact, the students had pulled loose a thread to unravel the web of corruption surrounding the highest echelons of political and economic power in the country.
Investigative journalists soon tugged even harder at the dangling string. Sohn Suk-hee, anchor of JTBC Newsroom, is the Korean equivalent of Edward R. Murrow. Dressed in neatly pressed suits and steel-rimmed glasses, he speaks in a slow cadence, choosing his words with care—but they sting. Just days after the university president’s resignation, Sohn stunned the nation with the scoop of the decade. His reporters obtained a tablet belonging to Choi Soon-sil that documented her backchannel access to the presidential office and intercession in affairs of state, including editing a draft of the president’s landmark speech on relations with North Korea. Sohn’s story opened up the floodgates as media outlets from across the political spectrum began to delve into Park’s long and bizarre family friendship with Choi and her father, Choi Tae-min, founder of a pseudo-Christian cult. The elder Choi, it turned out, became a mentor to Park in 1974 when he claimed to be in communication with the spirit of her mother, who had been shot dead in a botched assassination attempt on her father, President Park Chung-hee.
Park Geun-hye tried to stem the tide of criticism the day after Sohn’s report by delivering a perfunctory ninety-second apology on live television, which only intensified public outrage. She tried again the following week in a more belabored performance, also nationally televised, which was in equal parts abject apology, self-pity, and stubbornness—it too failed to move the public. Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, which is by design a weak branch of government compared with the powers of the executive (known in Korea as “the imperial presidency”). In refusing to resign, Park may have been calculating that fellow members of the conservative party, who held enough seats to block an impeachment in the National Assembly, would not dare defy her office. Leading figures in both the conservative and liberal parties were indeed dragging their feet, less out of loyalty to the president than trepidation at being unprepared for the snap presidential election that would follow her ouster. But pressure on the Assembly became acute as an independent counsel inquiry uncovered a trail of multimillion-dollar donations by major conglomerates, most flagrantly by Samsung, to dubious cultural and sports foundations controlled by Choi, who was arrested along with top aides to President Park on charges that included granting political favors in return for donations. On December 9 the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly for impeachment. The presidential crisis had thrust elected representatives into the limelight, and in the end they chose to exercise their constitutional powers to checkmate an executive who had lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry.
That brings us to the driving force behind Korea’s Candlelight Revolution: the bourgeoisie. Millions of people, with middle-class urbanites at the core, came out of the woodwork to stage boisterous demonstrations every Saturday night of the fall and winter of 2016. They would assemble under the towering statue of a sixteenth-century war hero (Admiral Yi Sun-shin) that was erected by President Park’s father as a tribute to military leadership in 1968, at the height of his ironfisted rule. Young families, pushing baby-strollers with one hand and carrying homemade signs in the other, made their way toward the presidential quarters like a walking volonté générale. Dividing in two streams running along the eastern and western walls of the royal palace, the crowds would sing impromptu verses from a fast-evolving repertoire of protest hits like “Can You Hear the People Sing?” and “Constitution Article 1” (“All authority in the Republic of Korea originates from the people”). They would stop at the barricade of police and security buses parked bumper to bumper, a mere hundred meters from the Blue House where President Park lives and works. In the first protests, people chanted “Park Geun-hye, resign!” As she dug her heels in, they switched to “Arrest Park Geun-hye!” And as outrage deepened over the breadth of collusion between the president’s office and family-owned conglomerates, they added, “The chaebol are complicit!” Workers and farmers were also well represented at the marches. But it was the prominent role of middle-class Koreans that gave the Candlelight Revolution such political force. They had fought as high school and college students to topple Korea’s military dictatorship and consolidate its fragile democracy into the 1990s. Now their furor was unleashed on an elected leader who ran a shadow cabinet and allowed the power of the state to be exploited by personal interests. And by throwing their weight into the protest movement, middle-class families brought the Candlelight Revolution into the political mainstream, creating a unified voice of dissent that the Assembly could not ignore.
Last winter in Korea, an “active citizenry” (as Barack Obama likes to call them) took the giant step of direct action. They organized through social media but took action in flesh and blood, in real time and space, and mobilized the moral authority of civic solidarity to bring down a leader who had violated the public trust. The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment by a unanimous vote on March 10, ensuring that the peaceful overthrow of a democratic leader took place in accordance with the rule of law. Their work has just begun, since replacing a president will not cure the collusion between political and corporate interests that has long corrupted the Korean body politic. And yet, as the West faces a crisis of faith in liberalism, there may be lessons to learn from Korea’s Candlelight Revolution, reaffirming the wisdom of political modernity—both Rousseau’s direct democracy and Burke’s enlightened representative, Dewey’s educating for democracy and Arendt’s acting in concert—for the postmodern mess of the present age.
John Delury is Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and an expert on Korean Peninsula affairs.
This article will appear in Dissent’s Spring issue as part of a special feature on repression and resistance across Asia. To get your copy, subscribe now.