A week after Japan, and the same Saturday we found ourselves at the Seoul Lantern Festival, we were walking through the empty remains of a Kimchi Festival on our way to Namdaemun for some hotteok. As we meandered through the City Hall area, we heard the faint rumble of loudspeakers and what sounded like a concert. Lights were beaming into the sky far down the wide road, and we saw plenty of people flocking in that direction. I looked at Danny. The glint in his eye only told me the one thing I figured I’d see: Yes, he wanted to go check it out. Why not? We had already visited the market, climbed a mountain, and walked through the Lantern Festival… What was one more thing?
We noticed that the street was closed to traffic, so it seemed like this was a big thing. What would we see? Could this be one of our first chances to see a real Korean idol? The closer we came, the more the answer pointed to “No.” A man’s call echoed over thousands pouring into Gwanghwamun Square. Hundreds carried signs or candles that lit up the night. We realized that this was an altogether different affair.
No, we weren’t at a concert; we were at a protest.
Granted, it took us about 15 minutes to fully grasp that — people kept waving their signs as we tried to translate them, and we had stopped for a few minutes to creep on a group of English speakers talking about what was happening… But truly, it didn’t take us too long after arriving to understand what we had just gotten ourselves into.
Why Are Koreans Protesting?
If you’ve been hiding under a stupid rock lately, you might not know that South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, is currently involved in a scandal. Her approval ratings have dropped to 5%. The scandal has prompted protests every weekend now for two months. The problem involves a friend of hers, Choi Soon-sil, who reports now show manipulated the president and helped dictate policy positions while also influencing large companies to donate tens of millions of dollars to companies that she controlled.
President Park also shared confidential details and information with her even though she had no governmental position. All of this has been met with so much scorn and derision by the people of Korea who say that she embarrasses them to no end. Though she has recently stated that she would be open to resigning, the Korean congress rejected the idea as a cop-out to avoid impeachment, which would allow her to be put on trial and actually suffer consequences.
Protest of President Park Geun-hye at Gwanghwamun Square
It was an eerie sight. We stood in the middle of an intersection and watched thousands converge on us from each street. Thousands sat in protest with their candles lit, and on a giant stage down the square, a man recited a litany of chants and calls to the protesters, backed by musicians and others who rallied the people into call after call. Signs read, “This is our country!” and “Resign, Park Geun-hye!” The anger was so palpable, and as an American, it was an interesting parallel to the protests that I know have been going on in America this past month.
We were happy to have gotten to be (even if accidentally) involved in the process of democracy. As a tip to travelers, typically your government agencies will tell you to avoid these kinds of events; there is always the chance it could turn awry. You might not want to be caught up in this in the case of possible violence. But being a fan of comparative politics, I find it fascinating to hear even my disinterested students talk passionately about protest. They have a clear direction in mind for their country’s future. I disagree with a few things in Korea. Even so, I hope it’s this kind of forward-thinking that will continue the momentum of progress.
Comparing Protests in Korea to the United States
Even as we left, people still streamed in. The count, the last I heard, was that the protest reached 250,000 people. In the weeks ahead, there would be over 1 million people in attendance. Can you imagine such a gathering? I hope the following video gives you a chance to be there for yourself.
I think this is just another reminder that we should all care about the direction of our country. Protest is one of our most basic rights as free citizens, something Korea obviously understands. America has a history of protests, but in the last few decades it seems as if protest doesn’t hold the same power. People think of protesters as “cry babies” and “whiners” when, really, they are upholding the most basic tenant of our democracy. I hope and wish protest movements can return to the US in an effective way that creates real change. One protest changes nothing, but many can change the world.
It’s odd to think about, but this protest occurred just days before the US election. We all know how that went. I hope people in the US will stand for their own rights lest they get taken away if Trump does something egregious.
To read more about what is currently going on, read this article from BBC News. If you want to get involved yourself, protests are happening every Saturday for the foreseeable future. Never a bad thing to be informed about what’s happening around the globe!
What About You?
Have you ever attended a protest at home or abroad? Seeing the similarities between Korea’s and America’s political climate is interesting; what are your thoughts on protests and their effectiveness? Let me know below!