The peaceful candlelight protests which led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye last winter were a historic moment for South Koreans. South Koreans are no strangers to protests. Since the 1960s until South Korea’s democratic transition in 1987, protesters have regularly taken to the streets to challenge authoritarian rule. During the democratic consolidation period, major protests erupted in response to US military issues, global trade, and economic injustice, with students and laborers often leading the way. What do the candlelight protests last winter tell us about South Korean civil society? In particular, what role, if any, did student movements play in the recent protests given the important role they once played in South Korea’s democracy movements?
In late October 2016, approximately 20,000 protesters gathered to demonstrate against the Park government amidst a bribery and corruption scandal. President Park breached the public’s trust by granting unprecedented access to classified documents and information to her personal confidant, Choi Soon-sil. She also revealed her ineptitude in leading her country. Meanwhile, Ms. Choi, taking advantage of her close ties to the president, managed to extort and bribe several South Korean corporations to fund her private foundations.
As details of the scandal unfolded, protest numbers continued to swell each weekend. By late November, an estimated one million South Koreans were gathering each weekend in Seoul to demand Park’s impeachment. The fallout from the scandal extended well beyond the Park government, leading to the investigation of a number of top South Korean companies and the arrest of Samsung’s chief executive Jay Y. Lee. The National Assembly ultimately voted to impeach President Park on December 9, 2016. In March of 2017, the Constitutional Court upheld the parliamentary vote, paving the way for a special election on May 9, which resulted in the victory of progressive party leader Moon Jae-in.
Although known to most South Koreans, many outside of South Korea remain unaware that the scandal had its roots in the summer of 2016, when students at the prestigious Ewha Womans University protested against the university administration over “unilateral and undemocratic” policies. Students had protested a continuing education degree program, known as LiFE (Light Up Your Future in Ewha) and staged a sit-in demanding a meeting with the university president. Although 1,600 riot police were dispatched to the campus, students ultimately rolled back the LiFE program. However, their attention turned to a new injustice: the illegitimate admittance and preferential treatment of a student based on her mother’s friendship with the South Korean president. The mother was none other than Choi Soon-sil. Student and faculty protests against preferential treatment for Choi’s daughter resulted in the resignation of the university president on October 19, 2016.
Although the connection should not be exaggerated, some commentators have argued that it was the student protests which prompted a broader investigation into Choi Soon-sil’s ties to the university, which in turn brought greater scrutiny unto Choi and the nature of her relationship to the President Park. The descent into this rabbit hole unveiled a world of bribery and corruption within the financial, political, and sports world, ultimately leading to the downfall of President Park. As Yonsei University professor John Delury argues, “In fact, the students had pulled loose a thread to unravel the web of corruption surrounding the highest echelons of political and economic power in the country.”
The connection between student protests and President Park’s impeachment gives pause for assessing youth democracy movements in South Korea’s past, present, and future. Undeniably, students have often taken up the mantle against authoritarian rule in South Korea. For instance, in 1960, university students, exposed to ideas of liberal democracy, criticized President Syngman Rhee’s frequent arbitrary revisions to the constitution and his abuse of the National Security Laws to suppress dissent. Students played a key role in ousting Syngman Rhee, allowing for a brief period of democracy until the 1961 military coup led by General Park Chung-hee (and the father of Park Geun-hye). Student activism remained vibrant in the 1970s, and especially during the 1980s in the wake of South Korea’s democratic transition in 1987. Students on the front lines in the fight for democracy often bore the brunt of police batons and tear gas during these demonstrations.
In the post-democratization era, student movements continued to organize around specific problems related to US military issues, inequality, free trade, and government corruption. However, in the past decade, South Korean social movements in general, and student movements in particular, have not retained their vibrancy or the robustness of the authoritarian era. South Korea has been a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since 1996, and is currently the eleventh largest economy in the world. The social, political, and economic context for student protests today therefore differs from the authoritarian past. The typical South Korean student is more focused on completing their degree, studying abroad, or finding employment rather than taking up the call for social justice into the streets.
In fairness, the number of students participating in street protests is not necessarily an accurate gauge for measuring the vibrancy of youth movements. More important is the level of political participation and social engagement found among young South Koreans. The protests leading to the impeachment of President Park were a monumental event and will be remembered for years to come, particularly for younger South Koreans who were witnessing the power of civil society for the first time. The immediate impact of the anti-Park protests was the impeachment of the president and the return of progressive leadership under President Moon. The longer-term impact, however, may be a renewal of civil society and a new generation of young South Koreans motivated to stay politically engaged.
The main point: In sum, the movement to remove President Park Geun-hye from power represents a watershed moment in South Korean politics. Youth movements have been relatively dormant in recent years in comparison to the significant role students played in the struggle for South Korean democracy. However, with new momentum and a potential progressive ally in the Blue House, one can expect an upswing in political participation among the younger generation.