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South Korea: How candlelight protests impeached a president and created spaces for direct democracy

 

 

By Jeong-eun Hwang

 

April 28, 2017 –– Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal –– At 9 am on March 10, people gathered in front of the Constitutional Court to await the court’s ruling on whether to impeach South Korean president Park Geun-hye. Two hours before the verdict was read, those gathered chanted: “The Constitutional Court should uphold Park’s impeachment!”

 

At the designated time of 11am, the crowd held its breath as the eight judges appeared on the large screen set up in front of the court. As acting chief Lee Jung-mi calmly read the verdict, the crowd broke out at times in cheers and at others times in groans. After 20 minutes, Lee concluded the verdict by stating that the president would be removed from office. The crowd erupted with shouts, clapping and crying.

 

Those that had come out onto the streets in protest had finally “impeached Park.” For the past four months we had gathered at the square to realize our demands and acted on them, creating a space for direct democracy. In winter, we planted the seeds to make fundamental changes in Korean society shouting slogans, from the impeachment of Park to the eradication of deep-rooted problems like corrupt conservative forces and the chaebols that had been reigning over our laws. As spring comes, we await the seeds to sprout, nourished by the radiance of people power.

 

Timeline

 

● October 24 – JTBC uncovered Choi Soon-sil’s (a close confidant of President Park) tablet and reported that Choi Soon-sil had revised Park’s presidential speeches and accessed government documents.

● October 25 – In her first public statement, Park admitted that Choi had helped her with speeches and public relations during her presidential campaign but had stopped upon inauguration.

● October 29 – 30,000 people[1] gathered at the first rally to condemn the influence peddling scandal and demand Park’s immediate resignation.

● November 4 – After Choi was arrested, in her second public statement, Park pledged to cooperate with prosecutors in their investigation and asked them to investigate what had happened.

● November 12 – In the third candlelight protest, over a million people gathered peacefully.

● November 29 – In her third public statement, Park said she would leave her fate to the National Assembly mentioning the possibility of shortening her presidential term[2]

● December 3 – Criticizing Park’s third public statement, 2.3 million people gathered nationwide and for the first time, backed by a court ruling, people were able to march up to 100 meters in front of the Blue House.[3]

● December 9 – The National Assembly passed an impeachment motion with 234[4] members in favour and 56 opposed. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn immediately became the interim acting president.

● December 21 – A special prosecutor team[5] was set up to investigate the influence peddling case.

● January 1 – Park had a meeting with reporters and denied charges of wrongdoing saying that the accusations against her were "fabrication and falsehood."

● January 21 – Former Blue House Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon and Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Cho Yoon-sun were arrested. They were charged for their leadership role and involvement in the blacklisting of cultural figures who had criticized the Park administration.

● January 26 – Park had her first interview, after the scandal, with Jeong Kyu-jae, chief editorial writer of the conservative Korean Economic Daily. The interview focused on conspiracy theories that the current scandal was a witch-hunt by liberals and leftists.

● February 17 – Samsung's Vice-Chair Lee Jae-yong was arrested on charges of giving a 41 billion won donation to Choi Soon-sil's organization to get government support for his control of a company merger.[6]

● February 28 – Interim Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn declined to extend the period of the special prosecutor's investigation thus ending its official probe. [7] The special prosecutor team presented its final results on March 6. A total of 30 people were indicted in connection with the scandal and they transferred the results to the state prosecution for further investigation.

● March 10 – In a unanimous vote, the Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment motion against Park Geun-hye.

 

Constitutional Court's reasoning for impeachment

 

Within 21 minutes of reading the verdict, the Constitutional Court concluded that “the court rules to expel President Park Geun-hye.” The court decided to unseat Park for her violations undermining representative democracy and the rule of law, and her lack of will in guarding the constitution.

 

Based on the facts clarified during the trial, acting Chief Judge Lee announced that Park “abused her power for Choi Soon-sil’s personal benefits, did not perform her duties fairly and violated the constitution, the Government Officials Act, and the Public Servant´s Ethics.” In addition, Park’s actions to give direct and indirect help to Choi’s foundation (Mir and K Sport Foundation) by pressuring corporations to donate money, and Choi’s intervention in state affairs for her own gains were “violating corporations’ property rights and freedom of their management.” Lastly the fact that Park sent presidential documents to Choi showed she violated her duty to protect confidential state documents under the Government Officials Act.

 

Although it was clear Park violated these laws, “The president completely concealed Choi Soon-sil's meddling in state affairs and denied all allegations whenever they were raised, impeding any efforts for checks and balances by the legislative or judicial branch, and paralysing the media's role of monitoring the government.” Furthermore, the court pointed out that “Park’s actions to support and get involved in Choi’s pursuit for personal gains had continuously happened in her term and that she tried to conceal the truth after the facts had been revealed.” Lee concluded, "The removal of the claimee from office is overwhelmingly to the benefit of the protection of the constitution. Therefore the court removes President Park Geun-hye from office."

 

Citing a lack of evidence, the court rejected the three other charges[8] in the impeachment motion: abusing her power to appoint and dismiss officials in the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in Choi’s favour[9] ; violating freedom of the press by applying pressure to fire the president of Segye Ilbo newspaper[10]; and most importantly, neglecting her duties during the seven hours following 2014’s Sewol ferry tragedy. In the verdict, Lee said that “even a disaster situation that puts people’s lives in jeopardy cannot be seen as mandating the president to take specific, concrete action such as personally participating in the rescue activity. The concept of sincerity is relative and abstract, and impeachment cannot be requested on the grounds that she violated regulations around abstract duties. ”[11] Despite public pressure to reveal her actions during these seven hours, the truth has yet to come to light.

 

Candlelight protests re-write history

 

On March 11, the 20th candlelight protest became a festival celebrating the removal of Park from office. A total of 16.5 million people participated in the candlelight protests leading to the 20th one. The protests were sparked by Choi’s daughter (Chung Yu-ra) getting special treatment in university admission[12] and JTBC’s continuous reporting of the influence peddling scandal. Young, old and people from all sectors of society participated. Workers[13] , women[14] , college students[15] , artists[16] and local residents[17] brought the protests and organizing to their sectors and communities. Ultimately, the people gathered at Gwanghwamun Square made their voices heard and, together, built direct democracy .

 

People’s demands had started with calls for Park’s resignation. They widened to the dissolution of Chaebols, the cleaning up of deep-rooted corruption and punishment of all those connected to the scandal. People’s protests prodded political parties to action at the crucial moment before the vote for the impeachment motion in the National Assembly. The motion passed with overwhelming support, and key actors such as former Blue House Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon and Samsung's Lee Jae-yong were arrested. Then, on March 10 the candlelight protests turned Park into the first Korean president to be ousted by impeachment. We showed the world that we are the rightful owners of the country and that we can recall politicians. People who “could not stand it anymore” came to the square and directly experienced creating change by uniting their voice and action.

 

The 20 candlelight protests not only ousted President Park, they also elevated citizens’ consciousness. When words or songs on stage at the candlelight protests discriminating against minorities were pointed out, organizers and people apologized and revised their words. In addition, the candlelight protests became an agora where workers, farmers and minorities could share their issues and people could show solidarity by signing petitions and joining campaigns. One particularly moving example of people’s mobilization happened after the protests. After finishing the 20th protest, the People’s Emergency Action to Bring Down President Park asked for online donations to cover their debt of 100 million won ($91,000)[19] . Within five days they exceeded their goal ten fold and raised 1.2 billion won ($1.1 million). Following the 21st candlelight protest, the next one was scheduled for April 15, calling for the realization of the remaining demands.

 

An unfinished fight: what’s next?

 

“Removing Park from office is not the end but the beginning!” This was the slogan shouted on March 10 as people marched from the Constitutional Court to the Blue House. We need to ensure that history does not repeat itself. This means that in addition to removing President Park from office we have to arrest her and all those connected with her corruption. Furthermore, there were many policies carried out under the Park Administration that must be corrected. Park’s removal does not in itself solve the corruption and destructive policies left behind by her administration. We need to fight to reveal the truth of the Sewol ferry tragedy by recovering and investigating the ferry. We need to annul the decision to deploy THAAD [US anti-ballistic missile base] in the Korean Peninsula. We need to overturn the humiliating agreement resolving the issue of the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery. We need to abolish the state history textbook. The list is long. People have had first-hand experience of creating change by participating in politics and putting forth their demands. An awakened people are powerful. We need to build on this newfound consciousness and fight for fundamental change.

 

At the square, we set democracy right and together developed a more mature direct democracy. We need to keep going and build the democracy we want, not simply the one offered by the presidential candidates in May 9’s early election. We need to build direct democracy in our workplaces and communities. It’s not yet over. In fact, this fight propelled by people power has just begun.

 

Jeong-eun Hwang is the General Secretary of the International Strategy Center, which is based in Seoul.

 

Notes

 

[1] The number of people that participated was 15 times higher than what organizers had predicted.

 

[2] The third public statement happened after the prosecutor had defined Park as “a main player” and “a suspect” in the scandal. In her statement, she rejected people’s demands for her immediate resignation. Some criticize it as an attempt at controlling the situation.

 

[3] This was the first time that a march was allowed 100 meters from the Blue House. At first the police banned the march but the People’s Emergency Action to Bring Down President Park won a court order suspending the ban.

 

[4] At least 200 out of the 300 Assembly members were needed for the motion to pass.

 

[5] A special prosecutor was appointed by a special act to ensure fair investigation and prosecution of the alleged crimes of high-ranking officials associated with political power.

 

[6] For the leadership transition, Samsung needed a controversial merger that required support from the national pension fund. The allegation is that support was granted in return for the donations.

 

[7] The special prosecutor had 20 days to prepare and 70 days to investigate. There was also a possible 30-day extension. They requested the extension saying that the 70-day investigation was not enough to examine the full scope of the scandal since their repeated attempts at accessing the president had been denied. Hwang Kyo-ahn rejected the extension stating, “The investigation had served its purpose and it was in the country's best interests for the investigation to conclude as scheduled.”

 

[8] The charges could be grouped into five broad charges: abuse of power, disclosure of confidential information, abuse of power in the appointment and dismissal of officials, violation of freedom of the press, negligence around the Sewol Ferry Tragedy. The Constitutional Court only accepted the first two.

 

[9] The court acknowledged that the officials in the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism were removed from their positions under Park’s order but the court concluded that it was difficult to conclude Park’s decision against the officials was made because they were obstacles for Choi’s personal benefits.

 

[10] According to the National Assembly, the Blue House threatened a tax probe and legal action against the Segye Ilbo newspaper after it reported on alleged interference in state affairs by Choi's then husband, Jeong Yun-hoi, forcing the daily's president to step down. However, the court stated that there was not enough evidence that Park was directly involved in the decision.

 

[11] http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/786010.html

 

[12] Read the article from the ISC’s November newsletter “Anatomy of a scandal” at http://iscenter.or.kr/english/2016/11/30/anatomy-of-a-scandal/

 

[13] Read the article from the ISC’s November newsletter “Organizing workers to oust President Park and change society” at http://iscenter.or.kr/english/2016/11/30/organizing-workers-to-oust-president-park-and-change-society/

 

[14] Read the article from the ISC’s November newsletter “Waging a two-front war: against the president and gender discrimination” at http://iscenter.or.kr/english/2016/11/30/waging-a-two-front-war-against-the-president-and-gender-discrimination/

 

[15] Read the article from the ISC’s November newsletter “Reviving the student movement” at http://iscenter.or.kr/english/2016/11/30/reviving-the-student-movement/

 

[16] Read the article from the ISC’s November newsletter “Artist action Majjang fights back” at http://iscenter.or.kr/english/2016/11/30/artist-action-majjang-fights-back/

 

[17] Read the article from the ISC’s November newsletter “Building people power at the community level” at http://iscenter.or.kr/english/2016/11/30/building-people-power-at-the-community-level/

 

[18] Read the article from the ISC’s January newsletter “ A candlelight revolution” at http://iscenter.or.kr/english/2017/01/30/rooted-in-struggle/

 

[19] All protests were organised with people’s donation. However there were three-days of protests from March 9 to 11, and they only collected people’s donations on March. 10. That is how the debt was accumulated.

 

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