South Koreans demonstrate for President Park Guen-hye's resignation (Candlelight Revolution), 2016-2017

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Timing
Time Period:  
29 October
2016
to
11 March
2017
Location and Goals
Country: 
South Korea
Location Description: 
Demonstrations took place in dozens of cities, but the largest of them occurred in Seoul.
Goals: 
Resignation of President Park Guen-hye
 

In 2016, a scandal erupted in South Korea when the local TV channel JTBC found President Park Geun-hye’s photos, public speeches, and policy drafts in a discarded tablet PC reportedly owned and used by Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend of Park with no official position in the government. On 25 October, the day after the news broke, Park appeared publicly to admit that she had given Choi access to drafts of her speeches during the first months of her presidency. However, she rejected accusations of further wrongdoing, claiming that she knew nothing about Choi’s alleged influence peddling and embezzlement of public funds.

For many, her apology was inadequate. Four days later, on 29 October, tens of thousands of citizens of all ages gathered in Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul with candles for a demonstration organized by Emergency Action for Park’s Resignation, a coalition that at one point included more than 1,500 civic organizations. They demanded that the president tell the truth. A few called for her resignation.

 candlelight vigil

Photo credit: Jirangmoon [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

On 1 November, in a move that some interpreted as an attempt to alleviate public anger over the scandal, Park reshuffled her Cabinet and presidential staff. She delivered a second apology three days later, in which she explained the background of her friendship with Choi and said that she would cooperate with the prosecutors’ investigation into allegations that she permitted Choi to influence government policies. In response, the opposition parties heightened their criticism of the president, but they stopped short of asking that she resign because they were afraid to trigger an early election that they were not sure to win.

Once again, the president’s national address failed to appease the South Korean people. Exactly one week after the first rally, 200,000 people flocked to Gwanghwamun Square for a second mass protest, this time to demand Park’s resignation.

At the third mass protest, on 12 November, a crowd of one million people beat on drums, chanted slogans, and brandished banners that called for Park’s resignation as they marched along four different routes from Seoul City Hall towards the Blue House, the president’s official residence.

Thus began the weekly Saturday rallies hosted by Emergency Action for Park’s Resignation that led to Park’s removal from office. Every Wednesday, members of the coalition’s operating committee met for between three to five hours to plan the demonstrations.

Multiple sources comment on the festive mood of the demonstrations, which included live performances by musicians and artists, as well as the use of wit and parody among many protesters. For example, one sign read: “Korea is like a convenience store with buy-one-get-one-free products: When we elect a president, one more (Choi) is elected.” The destinations of the demonstrators’ marches alternated between the Blue House, the Constitutional Court, and the Official Residence of the Prime Minister.

In the week after the fourth mass protest, public prosecutors in charge of the scandal investigation named the president an accomplice to extortion, and all three of the opposition parties (the Democratic Party of Korea, the People’s Party, and the Justice Party) declared a campaign to impeach Park.

On Friday of that week, in anticipation of the next day’s protest, labor unions, student associations, and farmers held preparatory meetings and marches and urged citizens to participate in the Saturday rally. While the Korean Peasants League, one of the country’s largest farmers associations, arrived in Seoul in tractors, student associations from major universities encouraged young people to a general rally at Gwanghwamun Square late that night. The next day, 1.5 million people turned out for the demonstration in Seoul, while 400,000 others protested in other parts of the country.

On 29 November, in her third apology, Park offered to resign and called on the National Assembly to arrange her exit. Nonetheless, opposition lawmakers rejected her offer and described it as a last-ditch effort to avoid the humiliation of impeachment.

Despite cold weather, 2.32 million people took to the streets of Seoul on 3 December, the Saturday after Park’s apology. Two days later, lawmakers said that public sentiment obliged the parliament to carry on with impeachment measures: “The public’s anger, reflected through candlelight rallies, will not allow the president to return to state affairs. Our only option is an impeachment,” said Park Jie-won, the floor leader of the People’s Party. Around the same time, the parliamentary floor leader of the right-wing Liberty Korea Party, Chung Jin-suk, told Park that his party could no longer support an earlier proposal for her to step down voluntarily in April due to public anger.

On 6 December, with the president’s approval ratings at a record low of four percent, political allies reported that she would accept the result of the impeachment vote, but leave it to the Constitutional Court to determine the legitimacy of the vote.

Three days later, around 10,000 protesters held a rally outside the National Assembly on Yeouido as the lawmakers inside voted to impeach the president on grounds of extortion, bribery, abuse of power, and leaking government secrets. “Can you hear the roar of the people in front of the national assembly? We need to overcome the old establishment and create a new Republic of Korea by passing [the impeachment motion]. Our great people have already opened the way. Let’s make it so we can stand honorably in front of history and our descendants,” Kim Kwan-young, an opposition lawmaker, said moments before the vote. The bill passed 234 to 56, with nine invalid votes and abstentions.

The next day, 500,000 people gathered with candlelight and music in central Seoul to celebrate their victory. However, the campaign was not over, for the Constitutional Court now had up to 180 days to review whether the impeachment was constitutionally sound. Only if the vote was ratified would Park formally resign.

As a result, while the people waited for the Constitutional Court to make its decision, they continued to demonstrate in large numbers each Saturday.

The Court finally delivered its ruling on 10 March 2017, having upheld the impeachment by an 8-0 vote. The very next day, people gathered for a “Celebration of Democracy” with floats and costumes, the last rally of twenty. Together, these twenty demonstrations powered the “Candlelight Revolution,” a campaign that involved 15.87 million South Koreans, nearly a third of the country’s population.

Research Notes
Influences: 

South Koreans previously used candlelight demonstrations in 2002, after a U.S. military tank trampled two middle school girls to death (see "South Koreans protest against the mishandling of the deaths of two Korean students caused by U.S. Army, 2002-2004"), and in 2008, when young school girls began a protest against the government's decision to import U.S. beef without proper supervision (see "South Koreans protest government's lift of ban on US beef, 2008").

Sources: 
Agence France-Presse. 2016. “Tens of Thousands March Demanding South Korean President Park Geun-Hye Resign.” The Guardian, November 12. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190318010507/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/12/tens-of-thousands-march-demanding-south-korean-president-park-geun-hye-resign).

Anon. 2016. “Tearful South Korean President Says Scandal of Friend’s Influence Is ‘All My Fault.’” The Guardian, November 3. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/04/tearful-south-korean-president-says-scandal-of-friends-influence-is-all-my-fault).

Bae, Hyun Jung. 2016. “2 Million Expected to Rally against Park.” The Korea Herald, November 25. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190318005305/http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20161125000596).

Choe, Sang Hun. 2016. “Protest Against South Korean President Estimated to Be Largest Yet.” The New York Times, November 26. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/world/asia/korea-park-geun-hye-protests.html?module=inline).

Choi, Ha Young. 2016. “Candlelight Revolution Brings Regime Change.” The Korea Times, December 9. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190517183705/http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/12/116_219875.html).

Dudden, Alexis. 2017. “Revolution by Candlelight: How South Koreans Toppled a Government.” Dissent Magazine. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (http://web.archive.org/web/20190517184110/https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/revolution-by-candlelight-how-south-koreans-toppled-a-government).

Jo, He Rim. 2017. “10 Million Participate in 2016 Rallies.” The Korea Herald, January 1. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190318004615/http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170101000217).

Jung, Min Ho. 2016. “People Power Propels Change in Korean Politics.” The Korea Times, December 9. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (http://web.archive.org/web/20190517184638/http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/12/116_219852.html).

Kim, Bo Eun. 2017. “Candlelight Revolution Expels Park.” The Korea Times, March 11. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (http://web.archive.org/web/20190517184305/https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/03/356_225454.html).

Kim, Ji Hoon and Su Ji Park. 2016. “How Million-Strong Candlelight Demonstrations Are Being Organized.” The Hankyoreh, December 6. Retrieved March 17, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190317235551/http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/773491.html).

Kim, Se Jeong. 2016. “Peace, Parody Replace Violence at Protests.” The Korea Times, November 27. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190318000437/http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2017/01/113_219031.html).

McCurry, Justin. 2016a. “Half a Million South Koreans Celebrate Impeaching of President Park Geun-Hye.” The Guardian, December 11. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/12/half-a-million-south-koreans-celebrate-impeaching-of-president-park-geun-hye).

McCurry, Justin. 2016b. “Park Geun-Hye: South Korean MPs Vote to Impeach President.” The Guardian, December 9. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190318014028/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/09/south-koreas-parliament-votes-to-impeach-president-park-geun-hye).

McCurry, Justin. 2016c. “South Korea Impeachment Vote: The Key Facts behind a Presidential Crisis.” The Guardian, December 9. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/09/south-korea-impeachment-vote-the-key-facts-behind-a-presidential-crisis).

McCurry, Justin. 2016d. “South Korean President Park Geun-Hye Defies Calls to Quit.” The Guardian, December 6. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190318012956/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/06/south-korean-president-park-geun-hye-defies-calls-to-quit).

McCurry, Justin. 2016e. “South Korea’s President Calls on Parliament to Arrange Her Exit.” The Guardian, November 29. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/29/south-koreas-president-calls-on-parliament-to-arrange-her-exit).

Ock, Hyun Ju. 2016. “Candle Revolution: How Candles Led to Park’s Impeachment.” The Korea Herald, December 9. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190318004036/http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20161209000458).

Park, Su Ji. 2017. “Candlelight Demonstration Organizers Declare an ‘Emergency’ Push for Park’s Impeachment.” The Hankyoreh, February 10. Retrieved March 17, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190317234017/http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/782187.html).

Reuters. 2016. “New South Korea PM Appointed as Cronyism Scandal Widens.” The Guardian, November 1. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/02/new-south-korea-pm-appointed-as-cronyism-scandal-widens).

Won, Young Su. 2016. “South Korea’s Historic Candle Light Protests Bring Down President Park - The Bullet.” Socialist Project, December 12. Retrieved March 18, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190318002553/https://socialistproject.ca/2016/12/b1339/).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Sacha Lin, 17/05/2019