On November 12, a nice Saturday autumn afternoon, we headed down to downtown Seoul to observe what would be recorded as one of the largest and most significant political protests in Korean history. Over one million citizens were estimated to participate in the protest, mainly demanding that President Park Geun-hye should either step down or be impeached.
As more protesters joined from all directions, we moved at a snail’s pace as we made our way from the King Sejong statue to City Hall. Some protesters were sitting on the ground, others were standing or walking around. Two stages, one at the center of Gwanghwamun square and one at the City Hall Plaza, were set up where we saw various citizens, activists, and celebrities taking turns to speak to the crowd.
Political protests are nothing new in Korea. In fact, scholars of Korean studies have characterized the nation as having both a strong state and contentious society. What we saw on this day further illustrates this dynamic: citizens challenging a powerful presidency.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
One of us had also witnessed the large-scale demonstrations that took place back in 1987 and 2008. In 1987, Koreans were demanding democratic reform while in 2008 they protested against importing American beef. The November 12 protest resembled more so the one in 1987 in terms of both scale and nature. The 2008 beef protests, on the other hand, had been triggered by controversial media coverage of cases of mad cow disease, coverage that was later found to be somewhat distorted.
However, there are some important differences between the protests of 1987 and 2016.
The 1987 demonstrations were largely student-led and supported by labor groups, including white-collar workers. While some protesters who were enraged by the torture and death of a Seoul National University student participated spontaneously in the 1987 protests, the participants were largely well-organized movements with a clear political cause: democratization. They were also characterized by a serious, no-nonsense atmosphere with frequent, oftentimes violent, showdowns between protesters and police.
In comparison, the 2016 protesters were more diverse. While primarily organized by labor groups and other social movement organizations, they included other populations, with participation being much more spontaneous. In stark contrast to 1987, there were no eruptions of violence. Rather, the event was largely peaceful — at times almost resembling a festival attended not only by protesters but also by tourists, foreigners, families, and dating couples.
Perhaps a more important difference had to do with the significantly emotional elements of the protests. This time many expressed a sense of disappointment, betrayal, embarrassment, and shame — such being even more so the case for those who had supported Park in the last presidential election — wondering if this was the country they had been so proud of.
One protester told us that Park had not only shamed the nation but also her father, the late Park Chung-hee who is considered by many to have rescued the country out of poverty. Another protester shared with us that he was very embarrassed about the allegations against Park, including her close association with a shaman who was accused of being improperly and illegally involved in state affairs.
Some Western observers may have difficulty understanding why Park should be asked to step down or be impeached since these demands have only been based on allegations, with an investigation still underway. Yet Park’s approval ratings have plummeted to a record low of five percent. Western observers may wonder: Shouldn’t South Koreans give their president the benefit of the doubt at least until proven guilty?
Here, we need to understand a distinctive Korean political culture that prioritizes elements of virtue, shame, and saving face. Legal matters aside, many Koreans felt foremost that Park had shamed the nation and thus should step down. Take the case of U.S. President Bill Clinton; despite his scandals, he was not found legally guilty and thus survived his presidency. Such an outcome would not have been possible if he had been the president of Korea.
Park is trying to weather the storm, but in the eyes of most Koreans, she has lost “the mandate of heaven.” This will make it difficult for her to run the country even if she avoids stepping down or impeachment. The “mandate of heaven” concept has its origins in China and later was adopted by the Choson dynasty in Korea. Whether the mandate is lost depends on the virtue of the emperor; if he does not fulfill his obligations as emperor, then he loses the mandate and thus the right to continue as emperor.
Ultimately, Park will have to face a legal verdict, probably impeachment, which will take several months. Yet for many Koreans, regardless of the outcome, she is no longer seen as a legitimate leader. As such, political turmoil will continue until she steps down from her presidency.
Gi-Wook Shin is director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and professor of sociology at Stanford University.
Rennie J. Moon is an associate professor at the Underwood International College at Yonsei University with expertise in comparative education.