After Choi-gate

Protests in South Korea expose both a growing discontent with the status quo and the hurdles faced by the Left.

Protests in Seoul, South Korea in November 2016. afnos / Flickr

On Saturday, November 5, approximately 200,000 people surrounded Cheonggyecheon, the reclaimed urban river in downtown Seoul, to denounce South Korean president Park Geun-hye. Phalanxes of neon-yellow-jacketed police, marching in groups of five hundred, surrounded the protesters at a respectful distance. It felt like a test; the narrow roads couldn’t hold all the attendees, making it seem like the organizers hadn’t expected so many.

Despite the cold, more and more came, and the crowd moved to nearby Gwanghwamun Square in the city center. They stayed past 2 AM, long after the police started asking them to leave. Something was happening.

The next week, one million people crowded into central Seoul for the country’s biggest demonstration since 1987. Streets were closed off, and a last-minute court order rescinded the police’s non-assembly order near Park’s residence, the Blue House. The atmosphere buzzed: Myeongdong, Jongno, and other densely packed central neighborhoods — normally given over to heavy traffic and shopping — felt like a giant street party. Trains and buses into Seoul were completely booked as groups of students, seniors, and union members converged on Gwanghwamun Square.

But this was no celebration. The protesters expressed their anger at President Park, accused of being the avatar of Choi Soon-Sil, a shadowy billionaire and daughter of a cult leader, Choi Tae-min. Choi senior became the president’s confidante soon after her mother was assassinated in 1974 and remained close until his death in 2004. The younger Choi appears to have been running the country through Park, not just to get favorable land deals and donations to her charities but as a private fiefdom. Choi is accused of writing Park’s speeches and dictating government policy.

An infamous scene in Inside Men — South Korea’s 2015 slick political thriller — takes place at an over-the-top party hosted by a high-ranking politician. While he dines with a prosecutor and a newspaper editor, naked sex workers line up behind them. The inebriated elites knock over rows of shot glasses with their erections. It seemed like a rhetorical flourish, but Choi-gate, as it’s being called, has made those creepy executives seem staid.

New revelations appear every day. Choi’s daughter skipped most of high school and still got into the prestigious Ewha Women’s University; a professor who gave her a bad grade was disciplined. At Choi’s urging, the president decorated her 2013 inauguration tree with shamanistic symbols.

In 2015, Olympic figure skater and gold medalist Kim Yuna, wearing a ribbon in solidarity with the Sewol ferry victims, refused to hold the president’s hand during a ceremony; she subsequently lost the “Best New Athlete” title, allegedly at Choi’s behest. Public outcry forced the government to recognize her achievements.

Not even Psy, the Korean singer who gained worldwide fame with his song “Gangnam Style,” has escaped. He’s accused of being close to Choi’s niece, Jang Si Ho, who is allegedly responsible for soliciting bribes for Choi’s fake charities (“baseless rumors,” according to his management company).

The ongoing revelations have drawn even bigger crowds to subsequent protests. Big demonstrations are usually well organized, especially in Korea. Groups empty from their charter buses in matching neon pink or yellow vests. University, high-school, and middle-school students march behind their school flags. Hawkers sell foam pads for $1 so people can sit in the street comfortably. Food vendors set up their carts along the route, selling fishcake boiled on wooden skewers, hot sweet potatoes, brown sugar pancakes, and beer.

The rallies themselves have been carefully stage-managed to keep the crowds excited. Officials and teenage activists scream themselves hoarse in front of giant crowds as their images appear on giant screens set up every few hundred meters. Trade unions have dance groups who perform choreographed numbers in between speakers.

The protests have also brought forth an outpouring of creativity. A few hundred older trade unionists sat neatly in rows outside the central train station, watching a trio of younger men bang out an excellent cover of Judas Priest’s “Breakin’ The Law.”

At the anti-Park protests, musicians blacklisted for criticizing the Blue House’s handling of the Sewol disaster began performing nightly. A DJ truck and teenage MCs — rhyming with gusto, if not complete finesse — have entertained the crowds. College students give spontaneous cheerleading performances.

Dumped in the Street

This creative surge has catapulted minor media personalities into the public eye. Long-time cultural critic Heo Ji-ung first became popular as a commentator on the relationship talk show Witch Hunter (마녀사냥), which featured some of South Korean television’s first frank discussions of sexuality.

Also on the blacklist, he’s emerged as an unofficial spokesperson for young protesters, typified in his comments about making do with a “spiritual victory” (정신 승리). The phrase slyly references Chinese writer Lu Xun’s satire The True Story of Ah-Q, a story about succeeding in your imagination when you can’t succeed in the real world. Heo served as an MC for the November 12 protest.

Rhyu Si Min, who served as welfare minister in liberal Roh Moo Hyun’s administration and is a member of the progressive Justice Party, appears regularly on Fighting Tongues (썰전), a political talk show featuring debates between right- and left-wing speakers. Previously a niche affair, it now has ratings in the top ten. An informal online campaign to nominate Rhyu for prime minister has begun.

Lee Seung-hwan, singer and founder of K-pop idol management company Dream Factory, has long fought for social justice, a rare practice among risk-averse Korean celebrities. He performed at the November 12 rally and recorded “Dumped in the Street,” a song about life under the Park government, with retired K-pop superstar Lee Hyori. He also hung a giant banner on his headquarters, calling for the president to resign.

Cho PD, hip-hop star, owner of Stardom Entertainment, and reality-TV producer, released Lost Era to coincide with the fifth protest. It included lyrics like:

Why should we study, just to help a shaman?

How would you answer when children ask

What is important? Looking down on someone? Success?

With their faith in the system ruined, I doubt they’ll grow up okay

It’s stupid to put in any effort

If I cheat well enough, everyone becomes my dogs and pigs

A life spent without faith

A life spent avoiding injustice

It’s a sign of how deep the anger goes that these countercultural figures are rising from obscurity. But it’s also a sign that, if we want to understand these protests’ significance, we have to look beyond Choi and Park. The coverage in English-language media has focused on the corruption scandal, the relative peacefulness of the protests, and the maturity of South Korean democracy compared to the bad old days, when people fought in the streets. But corruption cannot fully explain why Park’s popularity has dropped to 4 percent nationally, with a high of 13 percent among seniors and a low of 1 percent among those in their twenties.

Go to the Country

Many of the protesters have come to believe that the country is run by arrogant elites who hate their own people. And for good reason: last summer, ex-education ministry planning director Na Hyang-wook drunkenly ranted that 99 percent of Koreans should be treated like dogs and pigs and called for the implementation of a caste system.

This sparked an upsurge in nostalgia for ex-president Roh Moo Hyun, who left a mixed record. Roh passed the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, a disaster for labor rights. But he also increased government transparency and is widely seen as a progressive politician hounded to suicide by conservative prosecutors.

These sentiments have not yet cohered into a political program. The main demand has been “Park: go to the country,” calling on the president to retire outside Seoul and lapse into political obscurity. Life-size cardboard cut-outs of Park, dressed in a prison uniform and wrapped in chains, have become popular as the protests have continued.

The protests’ size and longevity, however, show that something more significant is happening. The hundreds of leftists, trade unions, and civic groups — in particular the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the opposition Democracy Party, and even the Demonstration Party, which appears to consist of a few people sitting under a red flag — organizing the weekly gatherings cannot account for the size of the weekly gathering; the movement is more than the sum of its parts. While this signals that something new is stirring among South Korea’s working class, it also highlights the challenges the Left faces.

South Korea’s left remains a spirited but embattled force. Against the liberal concept of democratic transition, which the South Korean experience supposedly embodies, segments of the Right have never gotten over the end of dictatorship, opposing even mild reforms and repeatedly targeting left-wing political organizations. Its greatest success came in 2014, when it successfully disbanded the United Progressive Party for its alleged sympathies with North Korea. In the midst of long-term and hard-fought campaigns, the Left has been beset by ideological and organizational issues resulting in a number of splits — no different than progressive parties and social movements anywhere else, but with higher stakes given the South Korean labor movement’s historic militancy.

As Doucette and Koo argue, South Korea has a “post-democratic” system consisting of formally democratic institutions governed by elite, top-down rule. Its stability depends on its unique anticommunist context; in South Korea, the Cold War never ended. “The fear it produces helps facilitate the leveraging of power, protection of oligarchic interests, and even aggressive pursuit of further neoliberalization.” The Park Love Group reveals how much right-wing vitriol still exists: they’ve tried — and mostly failed — to muster anticommunist sentiment against the protests.

Although little discussed, this may be the most important fact about the anti-Park movement: in a country still technically at war with its nominally communist neighbor, red-baiting no longer works to suppress anger. This does not indicate that younger people have become pro-North; they simply have more pressing matters to consider.

The End of the Korean Dream

While Choi and Park’s collusion — and the unsavory details of Choi’s cultish upbringing — run deep, neither are particularly novel. The last four presidents have been either caught in or closely connected to corruption scandals, and cults have long been a serious problem.

Today, the looming end of the Korean Dream is spurring citizens to action. Thanks to contracts with the American military, low-cost export markets, and the ruthless exploitation of the working class, South Korea became rich very quickly. Wealth spread from family-run corporations, or chaebols, like Samsung and Hyundai to the middle and lower classes. Until the 1997 debt crisis and the IMF-imposed structural adjustment that followed it, workers could reasonably expect to have an apartment and a car and to send their kids to university. In a country that had been starving and largely rural until the 1970s, this social mobility mattered.

Since the crisis, however, South Korea has abandoned any pretense of equality. The ratio of permanent to contract jobs has reversed, and many people subsist on temporary, low-paid contracts. Minimum wage rests at about six dollars an hour, while rent deposits cost tens of thousands of dollars. Small businesses employ 90 percent of workers, and chaebols generate 80 percent of GDP. South Korea has the second-longest working hours in the OECD, only 9 percent trade union density, and the lowest social spending overall.

South Korea’s compressed neoliberalism is generational and cultural. Those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s — the so-called 386ers – drove the democracy movement with incredible heroism and great sacrifice. Their victory, however, has turned hollow: they ended the dictatorship only to watch neoliberalism pull away their achievements. This disillusionment has contributed to the Left’s inertia.

In response, younger people actively question a social order that requires respect for the elderly — and inter-generational financial subsidies — when the society they are inheriting offers so little. The generation gap separates the youth not only from their parents, but even from people in their thirties. Korea is experiencing a cultural revolution, driven by rage at diminishing expectations.

This is why some are calling South Korea Hell Joseon, a moniker that combines the name of Korea’s last kingdom with the hell of youth unemployment, intense competition for university seats, and dwindling marriage and family prospects for anyone under thirty. Almost three-quarters of people in their twenties want to leave the country.

Many men feel hopeless and resent feminism’s increasing influence. This has occasionally taken a dark turn, as, for example, with the rise of Ilbe, South Korea’s answer to the United States’ alt-right movement.

Meanwhile, social institutions previously seen as central to Korean society — marriage, family, career, and the prestige attached to a degree — have rapidly declined. The birth rate has plummeted, a reflection of the harsh realities of working long hours for low wages. Old certainties no longer hold.

The injustices at the top only made sense when people could hope for a better future. Many recent events have starkly shown the opposite.

A seventy-seven-day occupation of the Chinese-owned Ssangyong Motors in 2008 led to twenty-eight PTSD-related suicides among former workers. In 2014, three hundred teenagers died on an overloaded, illegally modified ferry while emergency services bickered over who should rescue them.

The next year, Baek Nam-gi was bludgeoned into a coma with a water cannon at an anti-government protest. He died a year later, and his death was officially recorded as a disease. Meanwhile Han Sang-gyun was leading the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions to fight against temporary contracts and for freedom of assembly. He was sentenced to five years in prison last summer after — ironically enough — calling on protesters to shut down Seoul.

The Choi-gate protests have absorbed this anger and swept beyond it. South Koreans seem to have finally had enough.

The Left’s Challenge

No large-scale party exists that can articulate a left-wing alternative. This allows a populist figure like Lee Jae-myung, mayor of wealthy satellite city Seongnam, to be presented as a progressive presidential candidate, simply because he instituted a minor basic income program and has directly called for President Park’s imprisonment. South Korea’s existing left must become more active and challenge the country’s oligarchic rule.

The protests demonstrate what a united citizenry can do, a necessary reminder at a moment when the Right’s politics of division are rising everywhere. The situation they’ve created is inherently unstable, but that doesn’t guarantee that a left alternative will emerge.

Soon, Park’s party — down to 12 percent in the polls — will grant a token concession: her phased withdrawal from power or even her impeachment. While meeting the protesters’ demands, this move might also allow the ruling party to recover in time for next year’s election. If not, the opposition Democracy Party is sure to win.

But neither mainstream party can address South Korea’s social crisis: only radical redistribution and increased democratic power — which the country’s legacy of anticommunism has never allowed to flourish — can.

South Koreans’ anger won’t dissipate after Park’s departure. Her alleged crimes, however lurid, are not the issue. Rather, the corruption of the elites and their maintenance of the staggering inequality produced by capitalism is driving the protests. The Left’s challenge is to turn this anger from a drive for impeachment to a drive for universal economic and social transformation.