With Park Geun-hye’s impeachment confirmed, the 2016-17 candlelight protest movement has won an important victory


On March 10, at 11:22 am, Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Lee Jeingmi read the final sentence of the verdict, declaring that the court had unanimously decided to dismiss President Park Geun-hye. With that, following a 92-day trial, Park Geun-hye’s presidency was over.

Pro-impeachment protesters present at that time in front of the courthouse applauded the verdict, filled with a huge sense of joy and the feeling of a moment of emancipation. On the other side, desperate anti-impeachment protesters were deeply disappointed, resorting to verbal and physical assaults, causing the tragic and unnecessary deaths of some poor old people.

It was a historic moment, signifying a gigantic political victory for the millions of people who participated in the grassroots candlelight protests – South Korea’s indignados – and for those who led the 134 days of consecutive mobilisations that all together brought more than 15 million people onto the streets. Park now joins the list of presidents ousted in disgrace; her collapse has sent nostalgia for her father’s time in power (Park Chung-hee 1961-79) to the dustbin of history.

Princess is gone!

The final verdict was conclusive in that Park Geun-hye was judged not fit to govern. Judges did not recognise certain irregularities and violations in their rationale for impeachment, but her confidante’s illegalities and her own abuse of power was more than enough cause for impeachment. The judges pointed to Park’s betrayal of the peoples’ faith, her intention not to defend the constitution, her refusal to cooperate with the investigations against her and her repeated lies.

Some were disappointed by the fact that her negligence of duty in dealing with the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster – in which more than 300 people, mainly high school students, perished – was not recognised as a reason for impeachment. But supplementary opinions to the verdict said that Park violated her duty to protect the lives of the people on board the Sewol.

For Park and her defence lawyers, the unanimous verdict of 8 to 0 was a great shock. After the final verdict was delivered, Park, no longer president, was said to be in a deep state of shock, because she had refused to listen to anybody and, right until the final moment, hopelessly held onto her belief that the trial would be dismissed or the case rejected. She was even more shocked by the 8-0 result because the judges of the Constitutional Court were regarded as mostly conservative and two justices of the court were hand-picked by her.

With the trial over, and her status as president constitutionally ended, she is obliged to immediately leave the Blue House (presidential palace). However, strangely, she remains there, having made no comments on the verdict nor clarified her plan to leave. Her private home is said to be unfit for her to return to. This eerie, incomprehensible attitude has invoked more doubts and contempt among the still angry people.

With her impeachment finalised, Park, stripped of legal immunity, is expected to be subject to criminal investigations on various charges, joining dozens of her accomplices on trial. The state prosecution is expected to begin formal investigations very soon, especially because Park snubbed investigations by the prosecution and the Special Prosecutor, contrary to her own promise to fully cooperate with the investigations in her apology speeches. There is no other option left but for her to spend time in jail, though some say that the next president may grant her an amnesty.

Ugly attempts to stop impeachment

Ever since the parliamentary impeachment on December 9 last year, reactionary forces have fought back. A mixture of far rightists, anti-communist extremists, ultra-conservatives, Christian fundamentalists, and others, formed an umbrella coalition of anti-impeachment groups. They organised a series of counter-mobilisations against the candlelight protests.

Throughout the course of the impeachment trials, these anti-impeachment groups stepped up their mobilisations, targeting the Constitutional Court and the Special Prosecutor. These reactionary, extreme rightists unfurled the Korean flag as their symbol, and even US and Israeli flags. Reactionary protesters uttered outrageous, groundless condemnations, accusing the candlelight protests of acting under the directive from North Korea.

The organisers of the anti-impeachment rallies exaggerated the size of their protests, even claiming, with little grounds, that their Korean flag mobilisations were much larger than the candlelight protests. At one point, just before the final verdict, they shamelessly claimed 5 million people took part in their rally, even though it was obvious that less than 50,000 people have mobilised.

This phenomenon is quite familiar for South Koreans because these right-wing extremists regularly mobilised to counter anti-government protests with a view to covering up the government’s wrongdoings and neutralising conflicts. They were notorious for ridiculing the victims and families of the Sewol ferry disaster. The ranks of the reactionary protests were filled with conservative, poor old people, who were usually paid to participate in the protests. The South Korean chaebols (wealthy owners of global conglomerates), who were involved in bribery and corruption scandals, regularly funded these groups, and the intelligence agencies are said to direct them behind the scene, funding them from illegitimate budget sources.

In the course of the scandal, it was revealed that the secretaries in the presidential office gave orders directly to these pro-government groups to mobilise and propagate misinformation. Their remarks and threats were so outrageous that even conservative media outlets were reluctant to broadcast them directly for it would have drastically diminished the credibility of those reactionary groups. Some of the extremist thugs held a rally in front of the Special Prosecutor’s home, threatening him and his family. And some extreme right-wing internet sites disseminated the private information of the judges.

Furthermore, the misinformation operation was organised systematically, and fake news on the scandal and the impeachment trial was widely circulated on the web. At rallies, copies of illegal newspapers full of fake news and threats were distributed in the tens of thousands. In spite of critical public opinion, the police were very cautious and slow to respond to these terrible threats and misinformation campaigns.

The coming presidential election

As the presidency has been vacated, the constitution requires a presidential election to be held within 60 days. Thus, technically, South Korean will elect a new president by early May. However, the presidential race had already begun following the parliamentary impeachment three months ago.

At the moment, Moon Jae-in, the candidate of the Democratic Party (DP), is leading by a large margin in most polls. Another DP candidate, Ahn Heejeong, a Governor of Chungnam Province, is second. Following the decision by conservative candidate, Ban Ki-moon, a former UN Secretary General, to give up on his bid for the presidency in late-January, most of the conservative candidates have been barely visible in the race, though Hwang Gyoahn, acting President and Prime Minister, is currently the preferred conservative candidate, with somewhere between half to a third of Ban Ki-moon’s support. His candidacy seems quite improbable however, and the overall collapse of conservative politics has been clearly felt.

It is therefore almost certain that the liberals will harvest the fruits of the historic struggles of the candlelight grassroots. Trade unions and social movements played a key role in organising this historic struggle, but they were just a drop in the great ocean that was the millions-strong candlelight protests. Furthermore, progressive politics is only partially represented by a moderate minority party, the Justice Party, after the banning of the United Progressive Party in early 2015, which was dominated by the pro-North Korea nationalist tendency. The Justice Party currently has 6 seats in parliament. Structurally, the trade unions and social movements lack the organisational mechanism to intervene in institutional politics in general, and in the presidential elections in particular.

In the course of the candlelight protests, a coalition of trade unions and social movements attempted to raise a voice that was independent from the opposition parties by organising a grassroots civic forum to discuss and debate the meaning of the struggle and grassroots alternative for a new republic. However, this initiative was unable to flourish and was easily sidelined by the mainstream media.

After the historic civic revolution

In this historic struggle, South Koreans have experienced another moment of political upheaval, following in the proud tradition of the April Revolution in 1960, the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, and the June Uprising in 1997. The candlelight protests also revived the spirit of the 2008 protests against US mad cow beef imports. The candlelight protests put an end to conservative rule and expanded and deepened democracy. South Korean democracy took another huge step forward, in spite of the gloomy crisis of South Korean capitalism.

It is highly likely that the heroic struggle of the candlelight grassroots will bring about a liberal government, and this is definitely a positive thing, considering the poor performance and misgovernance during the last 9 years of conservative rule. However, Moon Jae-in and his liberal opposition have neither a genuine commitment to an anti-neoliberal alternative nor the capacity to implement the radical reforms that the grassroots hoped for in the course of this historic struggle.

The crisis-ridden liberal opposition may end up winning the elections, not because of their capacity and credibility, but because of the poor performance and arrogance of Park and her conservative cliques within the ruling party. Only under huge pressure from the candlelight protests did the liberal opposition decide to follow the correct path of seeking to terminate this corrupt and incompetent conservative regime.

On the other hand, trade unions, social movements and progressive politics are dispersed and disunited after failure in the struggles against successive neoliberal offensives. Decisively, they failed to assert themselves as an alternative force, independent from the liberal opposition, during the candlelight protests. Thus, though they played an important part in the candlelight protests, they failed to provide political direction or strategic leadership in the course of the dynamic struggle.

Though the candlelight struggle has won a historic victory and deepened democracy, the future is uncertain. Either this opening may close after the presidential election, or it may expand and lead to a broader and deeper struggle for real issues beyond democracy. If trade unions and social movements learn the necessary lessons, they could lead this next stage of struggle. If not, South Korea may need to wait for a next generation.

Youngsu Won is coordinator of the International Forum in Korea and a regular Links contributor.

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