The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

A ‘Shoe Revolution’ in South Korea?

Why are South Korean protesters throwing shoes into the air? 

Tae-jun Kang
A ‘Shoe Revolution’ in South Korea?
Credit: Pixabay

We have often witnessed protest movements being named after a certain item used by demonstrators. The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong is one prominent example. During a series of protests in 2014 some protesters began to use umbrellas as shields against tear gas and pepper spray used by the police. The umbrella later became the protest symbol, one that resonates today.

South Korea might also see a protest named after an item – not an umbrella, but a shoe.

A group of demonstrators gathered in Seoul on July 18 to protest against the South Korean government’s move to regulate the real estate market. In a country where protests are common, the gathering was not that different from others — until participants threw their shoes in the air while chanting protest slogans.

The shoe-throwing came after an incident on July 16, when a man in his 50s was arrested for throwing a shoe at South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The man, surnamed Jeong, waited for Moon in front of the National Assembly Building in Seoul. When the president passed by after giving a speech, Jeong took off his shoe and threw it at Moon. The shoe did not hit Moon but landed near him.

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Jeong reportedly said he wanted to make Moon feel “humiliated” because Moon made South Korean people feel the same by ruining the country’s economy while promoting a “fake peace” (with North Korea.)

The police asked the court to issue an arrest warrant for Jeong for further investigation, but the Seoul Southern District Court dismissed the request. The police response had caused a public backlash, with many criticizing the move for being “harsh” and “unfair.”

South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung, a co-founder of the opposition New Conservative Party, said in a Facebook post that Moon “deserved to be blamed” and that protesting against the leader should not be restricted in a free country.

Kim Jin, a former columnist at South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, even praised Jeong, saying that the shoe throwing was a “historic move” that represented public anger against Moon.

Not everyone agrees. Regardless of Jeong’s intention, it was evident that he posed a physical threat to the country’s leader. It is difficult to rule out the possibility that similar or more severe cases could occur in the future. Some are urging the presidential office to beef up its security measures to prevent similar incidents from happening.

Regardless, the shoe is now gaining momentum as a symbol of souring public views of both the government and Moon,

Approval rates for Moon, for instance, are on a slippery slope. The latest poll conducted by Gallup Korea showed 45 percent of respondents approving of Moon’s performance, a 20 percentage point drop from eight weeks ago.

Many respondents cited the government’s real estate policy as an issue. South Korea has announced it will further tighten property market rules and impose heavier taxes on those who own multiple homes, as more than 20 rounds of cooling measures introduced in the past three years have failed to reduce steep housing and rent prices.

The government’s move resulted in a series of protests, including the one mentioned above, and some people have also started taking their protests online. An online movement aiming to push a certain keyword to trend on local internet portal sites gained traction this month.

The phrase “President Moon Jae-in tricks the 30s and 40s” recently topped the trending keyword list. “Tax Bomb, Impeach President Moon” and “Step down, Moon Jae-in” are among other popular phrases that have trended over the past few weeks.

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Another protest is also planned in Seoul on July 25, with more than 1,000 protesters expected to gather – and it’s likely more shoes will be flying through the air.