A Million in South Korea’s Streets

South Korea's unions and civil society have taken to the streets to demand conservative president Park Geun-hye step down.

afnos / Flickr

On November 12, roughly one million people went out on the streets to demand the resignation of the conservative South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, in what many have called the largest demonstration in the county’s nearly seventy-year history.

The day began with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions’ (KCTU) rally in front of Seoul city hall, later joining up with college students, farmers, and other groups’ rallies. In the evening, the march joined thousands of school students and other individual citizens to participate in a mass candlelight vigil, a traditional form of protest common in South Korean social movements. The city pulsed with masses of people, furious at the government and the president in particular.

President Park, daughter of Park Chung-hee, a South Korean military general and dictator who ruled the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, has come under public scrutiny in recent months following revelations that she and her administration have been running the government in their own personal interests, enriching themselves along the way, through a secretive cabal centered around Choi Soon-sil, daughter of deceased Shamanistic religious cult figure Choi Tae-min who advised the president until his death in 1994.

Recent revelations show that the president and Choi Soon-sil have been forcing major South Korean corporations to funnel tens of billions of dollars to the Mir and the K-Sport foundations. Secretaries of the Blue House, the South Korean equivalent to the White House, and ministries of the government worked and were involved in helping the two foundations in various unusual ways. The foundations, ostensibly dedicated to promoting Korean culture and sports abroad, were owned and operated by Choi Soon-Sil and her cronies.

Choi Soon-sil has secretly participated in almost every important decision taken by the president, ranging from government ministry appointments to arms deals, as well as more trivial decisions such as what colors of clothing President Park should avoid. Some media have compared her role to that of Rasputin in late Tsarist Russia. Her family members have enjoyed enormous and unusual power and privilege.

Choi Soon-sil’s daughter, for example, was admitted to Ehwa Women’s University, one of the country’s most famous and prestigious institutions of higher education, despite the fact that she received the lowest scores among her competitors and earned credits at the university without attending courses. Both the president of the university as well as many of her professors helped her and received government kickbacks in return.

She once posted on social media, “Having rich parents is personal power. If you don’t have it, blame your parents.” This sort of arrogance has proven particularly offensive to ordinary young Koreans, who face enormous competition and social pressure to enter higher education and acquire one of the scarce decent jobs available on the market.

The president’s approval rating currently stands at only 5 percent according to recent opinion polls, and last week’s protest showed that many South Koreans are ready to act in order to topple the president and her allies. The demonstration made a huge impact on the society in general and in particular on the country’s political class.

The ruling Saenuri Party is falling apart as conflict between the pro-president faction and others escalates. The prosecution, widely regarded as a government watchdog acting on the president’s behalf, was forced to open an investigation of the president’s activities. The National Assembly, however, decided to appoint a special prosecutor for what is being called “Choi Gate,” as nobody believes the prosecution, which has been tightly controlled by Park and Choi, would conduct the investigation properly.

The country’s main political opposition, the liberal Minjoo Party, has been reluctant to demand the president’s resignation. As a well-established party and permanent fixture of the political establishment, it prefers an “orderly replacement” of the allegedly corrupt politicians through legal means, and initially sought to distance itself from the demands being made by protestors on the street. But both the Minjoo Party as well as other smaller opposition parties were forced to change their position after the demonstration.

This whole shake-up is no accident. Like every upheaval, the situation in South Korea is mediated primarily by two factors: the split in the ruling class and the discontent of the people.

The South Korean economy is facing serious challenges. The recent crisis in shipbuilding, the largest such industry in the world and a key segment of the country’s economy, and ensuing bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping clearly showed the industry’s weakness.

Sections of the ruling class were not satisfied with the government’s handling of the problem. The most conservative and influential newspaper in South Korea, the Chosun Ilbo, began openly denouncing the government for its handling of the crisis. Shortly thereafter, the prosecution arrested the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and charged him with illegally lobbying for a shipbuilding company. These divisions within the South Korean ruling class have grown increasingly serious as it becomes clear that the government and ruling party are deeply unpopular.

The president and her government had already lost much popular credibility after the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in which over three hundred people, mostly high school students, lost their lives. The government’s rescue operation was totally incompetent and the president disappeared for seven hours while people watched the sinking ferry on television in horror and tears. The government later made great efforts to prevent and then slow down a public fact-finding mission, and the families of the victims are still struggling for justice in the form of a broad social movement that continues to this day.

To make matters worse, a seventy-year old farmer attending an anti-government demonstration last year was killed by a police water cannon. The government has so far refused to apologize for his death, let alone bring those responsible to justice.

At this point, a majority of South Koreans appear fed up with this president and her government. The level of public discontent was visible in the general election last April, when the Saenuri Party lost thirty seats and the opposition parties become a majority in the National Assembly.

Discontent has been more clearly visible within the labor movement. Shipbuilding workers have conducted strikes against the industry’s planned structural adjustment program. Meanwhile, public sector workers are also waging a fight against the government’s plan to introduce a performance-based wage system. South Korea’s labor movement occupies an important role in the demonstrations and the movement more generally. The Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU) has called for a general strike on November 30 to bring about President Park’s resignation.

South Korea is in turbulence and has become a socio-political battle field. The president and her close allies have no intention of resigning, even after the massive demonstrations. They will desperately attempt to restore and protect their power and control over the other political factions and the South Korean working class, while the mainstream opposition parties will seek to take advantage of the situation for their own ends.

The march on November 12 shows that the initiative for democracy and justice depends on the people’s movement. The question now is whether it can go further — from the streets into neighborhoods, schools, and universities and, most importantly, South Korea’s factories, offices, and other workplaces.