What South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution Tells Us About Defeating a Right-Wing Autocrat

South Korea’s 2016–17 Candlelight Revolution shows that to defend democratic rights, you have to be ready to step outside the bounds of liberal proceduralism. We should take the same lesson in the US: the best way to ensure that Donald Trump will respect the results of the November election is to mobilize in the streets and demand it. 

President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Des Moines International Airport on October 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

After years of corruption and democratic backsliding, a massive popular uprising took to the streets to demand the ouster of the authoritarian government. Its leader was not only impeached but convicted of serious crimes and sent to prison. The right-wing movement that backed the reactionary leader was completely discredited, allowing the opposition to win landslide victories in the following three election cycles. These victories, coupled with the expansion of social movements and labor activism, inaugurated a new period of vibrant liberalism in the country, whose future was undeniably bright.

This is not an alternate history of the Trump-era United States. It is the actual recent history of South Korea, where the “Candlelight Revolution” of 2016–17 triggered a major political realignment. And while impeachment proceedings in the United States are now a distant memory, it is worth contrasting them with South Korea so that we can understand why Democratic elites failed so spectacularly. Why now? Because ensuring the legitimacy of the 2020 election may require deploying the very tactic elected liberals refused to make a part of impeachment: mass politics.

As US impeachment proceedings were ramping up last fall, astute Korea watcher Nathan Park looked back at the experience of the Candlelight Revolution to offer advice about how the United States should impeach Donald Trump. Park’s piece is worth revisiting because while much of his advice focuses on the internal procedures of the South Korean National Assembly, he makes clear that the masses in the street were essential to former president Park Geun-hye’s ouster. Indeed, the piece is really a plea for elected officials and the mobilized public to recognize that both forces are necessary for impeachment to succeed — and that each has its own distinct role to play.

As Park describes, center-left legislators in South Korea took a restrained approach to impeachment. Like Democratic leaders in the United States, they faced an uphill battle that required reaching out to skeptical conservatives. They worked slowly and methodically to ensure the process was seen as legitimate and nonpartisan. Woo Sang-ho, who led the effort for South Korea’s liberal Democratic Party, even offered a compromise to the president: cede power, and you can hold on to your seat. Woo likely knew in advance that the president would reject the deal, because the change in government would not save Park Geun-hye and her administration from prosecution. But he put it on the table to show conservatives that liberals were attempting to meet them halfway.

By the time Woo made his offer, mass protests against Park Geun-hye were already sizable. But her rejection of the compromise pushed even more people into the street. The National Assembly’s slow movement had frustrated protesters — and now the president, who had completely lost the faith of the public, was refusing to leave office.

Still, the demonstrators had more on their minds than Park Geun-hye and the glacial pace of impeachment. As Ha-Joon Chang wrote in 2017, “The protesters were calling for more than just the ousting of an errant president and her cronies: They want to create a cleaner and fairer society.” In other words, the people in the street weren’t just protesting Park Geun-hye as an individual, but as a symbol of everything wrong with right-wing rule in South Korea: widening economic inequality, regressive social conservatism, open corruption, and growing authoritarianism.

The masses wanted more than mere impeachment. But their willingness to keep up the pressure day after day demonstrated the sheer popular force behind it. According to Nathan Park, legislators were then able to leverage this massive public resolve as they lobbied South Korean conservatives to abandon the president. It worked. The two elements — legislators and masses — had separate (and sometimes contradictory) roles to play, but both were essential for impeachment to succeed. And while we shouldn’t overstate the victory, their collective accomplishment wasn’t just an impeachment — it was the Candlelight Revolution.

We would all be better off had the Democrats taken Park’s advice to heart. Instead, in true Democratic Party form, they turned a crime against mass democracy into yet another tale of Trump’s softness on national security. Narrow legalism and Beltway concerns reigned. The public was excluded from any real participation, save perhaps urging their representatives to support impeachment.

Some protests took place, but they were not sustained affairs, and, more important, they lacked an autonomy unto themselves. They were not an independent political force with its own power and interests, but instead adjunct backing for legislative proceduralism. And really, who is going to take to the streets to defend arming Ukraine or whatever the Democrats decided impeachment was about?

Elected liberals’ distaste for mass politics doomed the process from the start. Given an opportunity to partner with the public against a widely despised administration that personifies the grotesqueness of the GOP, they opted instead to go it alone — and failed.

Had impeachment gone differently, perhaps the United States would have been spared the criminal negligence of Trump’s COVID-19 response. But with more than two hundred thousand Americans now dead, the focus has understandably shifted to the November election. If you read the polls, Joe Biden seems poised to coast into office amid a mountain of evidence that another Trump term would mean mass death on an even greater scale. It’s certainly possible that Trump will lose in a landslide and vacate the White House with little fanfare.

But in this country, where garnering the most votes somehow doesn’t mean you win the presidency — and where the forces of reaction continue to preserve minoritarian rule through whatever means possible — the slogan “just vote” rings fairly hollow. Voting should be one of many means to an end, not a proceduralism in its own right.

Trump lost by millions of votes in 2016 and still won the presidency. This election, he and his cronies are in full control of the powers of the state and are clearly doing whatever they can to disenfranchise everyone but the MAGA faithful. Like Park Geun-hye, they also have every incentive to hold on to power to avoid criminal prosecution.

They could use not-so-subtle threats of violence to intimidate poll workers and prospective voters. They could cite incomplete results on the evening of November 3 to illegitimately claim a Trump victory. They could use the chaos of a delayed result to solidify their own position and invalidate likely anti-Trump ballots. We already know that the Trump campaign is seriously discussing overturning the election results by appointing “loyal electors” in swing states with GOP-controlled legislatures.

This is not a problem that voting alone can solve, and we shouldn’t wait for the Democrats to recognize that dilemma. Instead, we should be making plans to get out in the streets, stay there, and demand that the will of the people be respected.

Should we do it because what passes for democracy in this country is in danger? Of course. But, more important, we should do it because Trump — like Park Geun-hye — is not an isolated problem but a monstrous symptom. A symptom of minoritarian rule, neoliberal misgovernance, social conservative tyranny, and any number of other structural inequalities whose number is finally up. Their abolition should be our demand. Booting Trump from office is merely the prerequisite.

In 1987, the Italian leftist Lucio Magri observed: “The true paradox of this century is that movements that criticized liberal constitutions often defended their formal elements more effectively, and with greater sacrifices, than did the most convinced apologists for those constitutions.”

The same holds true today. Elected Democrats have shown that, despite fetishizing the US Constitution and rightly warning of Trump’s threat to American democracy, they are unwilling to step outside the norms of liberal proceduralism. Ironically, it’s up to us — the people who think the Constitution is deeply flawed at best — to collectively defend the democratic elements that do exist in American society. In a procedural world, sometimes we must break norms to restore the ones that matter.