By Joseph Essertier
I interviewed Ms. Yoon Heesook on Monday, August 27, 2018. She is the head of the Records and Commemoration Committee of the Emergency People’s Mobilization for the Resignation of the Park Geun-hye Administration–a coalition of over two thousand civil society organizations that coordinated the mass protests of 2016-17 that eventually led to the impeachment of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
South Korea is a vibrant democracy. A powerful people’s movement is resisting neoliberalism and authoritarianism. When the people stood up and said that Park Geun-hye was not for them, the National Assembly voted to impeach her.
They communicated with their feet and candles. Throughout the coldest months of the year from October 2016 to April 2017, in a country known for its bitter winters, they took to the streets every Saturday for a total of 23 candlelight vigils. In Korean this is often referred to as the “Candlelight Revolution” (chotbul hyeogmyeong). 17 million people participated. At the height of the demonstrations, on December 3, 2016, 2.32 million people attended vigils across the country to demand Park’s impeachment. For an overview, see the first few pages of Chapter 1 of Mi Park’s South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution: The Power of Plaza Democracy (Coal Harbour, 2018).
This year, their new, democratically-elected head of state Moon Jae-in told Koreans and the world that “Spring is coming,” and come it did. US President Trump toned down his threats against North Korea, and we witnessed the unimaginable: a US head of state engaging in dialogue with the head of state of North Korea, a country that had been shunned by the international community for many decades.
I sat down with Ms. Yoon Heesook at the end of August 2018 to ask, “How can people in the US and Japan generate democracy and peace as South Koreans have done with their Candlelight Revolution?”
The letter “E” below stands for “Essertier,” the interviewer, and “Y” stands for “Ms. Yoon,” the interviewee. The interviewer’s notes are in italics.
E: How do you feel about the North-South division and prospects for peace today?
Y: As we were growing up, we hoped for reunification, but we did not really believe that it would come true in our lifetimes. Reunification was always a far-away dream. Recently, a survey showed that 40 percent of young people support reunification, but many of them are not really ready.
E: Do you remember the 1980s? When were you first involved in activism?
Y: I entered college in 1995. I experienced it as a young person. Pro-democracy protests were still big in the late 1990s when I became politically active.
E: So you have seen a lot of change in society in South Korea? You were involved in student activism?
Y: The first candlelight vigil was sparked by the Yangju Highway Incident of June 13, 2002 when US soldiers killed two teenage girls.
The use of candlelight to oppose government policy goes back to the Yangju Highway Incident of 13 June 2002, when two 14-year-old girls, Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun, were run over and killed by a 57-ton, US Army, bridge-launching, armored vehicle on a road in Yangju, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. Gyeonggi-do is the province that surrounds Seoul. The two girls had been walking to a friend’s birthday party. The South Korean government sought jurisdiction in the case, but Washington refused. The driver, Sergeant Mark Walker, was tried in a US military court and the court delivered a “not guilty” verdict. The Justice Ministry of South Korea was dissatisfied; the people were outraged. Thousands of citizens of Seoul poured into the streets demanding justice with candles in their hands.
I was attending the trial of the US soldiers, but the US was not allowing Koreans to see what was going on during the trial. They were aggressively preventing people from seeing the trial, and I was hit on the head. I was stepped on and as a result, almost died. I had to have surgery. I was invited to participate in a socially critical broadcasting program on TV.
Then in 2008, there was the problem of US beef imports.
In 2008, then-President Lee Myung-bak decided to allow US beef imports, which had been halted since 2003 after the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopahty (BSE), aka “mad cow disease” in the United States. On June 10, 2008 approximately 800,000 people gathered in Seoul to protest Lee Myung-bak’s policy, while 300,000 participated in protests in other cities. The series of protests of 2008 were a forerunner of the protests that later brought down the Park Geun-hye administration.
The US was trying to export beef over thirty months old and force South Koreans to consume it. This was at the height of the mad cow disease scare, and people were worried about their health. It was very problematic. People were against the decision of the South Korean government to reverse its ban on US beef imports. At that time I was emceeing demonstrations, and the police arrested and mistreated me. That was my first time to go to jail.
I also emceed the 2016 mass protests for the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.
E: Were the 2016 demonstrations totally peaceful? Did you see any violence?
Y: No, I did not see any.
E: That’s really amazing to me–that this great shift in power was not accompanied by widespread violence. In English-speaking countries, very little has been written about the Candlelight Revolution, and people do not understand. They don’t know that one of the great successes of this movement in South Korea has been the absence of violence. Will the momentum continue? Is South Korea going to become even more democratic? What are the possibilities for peace? The democratic revolution could bring about peace, couldn’t it?
Y: As to the first question on whether or not this will continue, the fruit that South Koreans have gained from this movement is that the people have learned that they can change the government. This realization is now embodied in them. So they can stand up against injustice the next time they have to. This experience is like a seed that will stay in them.
Even during the April 19 Movement to oust the first president Syngman Rhee in 1960, the people were aiming to impeach him. Many people in the South were saying, “Let’s go north and meet up with North Koreans at Panmunjom.” People always had reunification in mind. In my opinion, reunification is a necessary process to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.
E: Ms. Yoon, you have knowledge of the West. What must we in the West, especially Americans, do now? If you were to speak to US peace organizations, what would you tell us?
Y: This is Seoul. The cities around Seoul are part of Gyeonggi Province. There are US military bases here. I went to one area that was like a war zone. It was an open range for troop exercises. I don’t know what to call it. It was not just a firing range. US Air Force bombers came from Guam and dropped bombs on targets there. They were doing bombing practice. The base was in operation for 55 years. The people around the base were experiencing a war-like situation and violence, so it was like the war had never ended. I stayed there for one month because I was against the military exercises. I saw the pain of the people suffering there.
Not just military exercises. There were also the criminal acts of US soldiers. People felt as if they were still under a state of war. This kind of thing prevents peace from blossoming.
Americans have not experienced war. But wars involving the US are usually started by the US. For Americans, war is something that happens in other countries. US citizens might be concerned about war, but they have not experienced it–how it tears apart the lives of people. Americans must understand this situation—that war is going on in other countries. That might be a good place to start for them.
US peace organizations should be resisting war more actively. They should be on the front line, saying no more invasions.
It would be wonderful if Americans could support our efforts in South Korea for peace between North and South. If they came to support us, we would welcome them.
The situation is complicated because of Trump. I know that some Americans don’t support Trump’s policy on Korea because they don’t like Trump. The important thing is that this is about peace. It is not about one individual. This is ultimately about the people of North and South Korea and our peace.
E: Is it difficult to advocate self-determination in South Korea? There have been many dictatorships. There is always a struggle between the left and the right. There are certain laws against freedom of expression. Is this term “self-determination” seen as dangerous? If you write an article saying that Koreans must decide their own future, might you get in trouble? I especially have in mind the US military bases.
Y: There is an expression in Korean that South Korea must be the “driver” of the current peace process. South and North Korea should have the main role in this process. But we South Koreans need the cooperation of both the US and China. The US, China, North Korea, and South Korea—these four countries can make a deal.
I don’t think we are saying that the US must get out. But we are not in a war, so the US should not be here forever. Yes, the US military should be out eventually.
E: What percentage of people in South Korea would agree with you, that US military bases must be ultimately be removed from South Korea in the future? Like half, or 20%? Can you give me a rough idea?
Y: It is difficult to answer this question, because people have not really thought about the necessity of the US forces in Korea. People base their opinion on their political calculation. I cannot really say the percentage, but there are some people who are against withdrawing US troops. The more important thing for me is the issue of the unfair relationship between the US and Korea. That causes a lot of problems. US citizens are not judged in a fair way when they commit crimes in South Korea. There are many victims whose situation is not remedied through the courts. This comes from the imbalance in the US-South Korea relationship. That is the origin of the problem.
E: Are you now writing the history of the Candlelight Revolution? Are you involved in that process?
Y: Our organization has published two books in Korean as white papers. And we are preparing an English version summarizing these two books. The English version will come out some time this autumn.
E: At English websites that can be accessed by non-specialists, I have only seen a few articles on the Candlelight Revolution by journalists. There is some research in academic papers, but such research is not being read by the public, so few English speakers know what has happened here. South Korea is not so different from the US. We in the States could do the same thing. It’s a free market economy, both nation-states, both rich countries. Is there any effort underway in South Korea to spread the revolution overseas for democracy and peace? In Nagoya, Japan, I made a candlelight peace display that we used for a gathering on the street on three separate evenings to express our solidarity with South Koreans who are working hard for democracy and peace.
Y: When the Japanese people had a movement to bring down Abe, we sent 8,000 LED candles to Japan to support them. We sent them to a network of organizations who were organizing against Abe. And the Japanese held demonstrations with the candles. The idea was to send these candles to Japan so that the Japanese people can use them to build their own movement. Also, South Koreans sent two delegations to meet the Japanese organizations organizing against Abe.
There was also an international symposium in South Korea with participation of people from Japan, Taiwan, and Tunisia. They came to South Korea, and there was mutual sharing about our experiences. They toured Korea and learned about what happened during the Candlelight Revolution.
E: Many Americans tend to assume that we have the greatest democracy and are not open to learning from people in other countries, but antiwar groups in the US will be interested in learning from the Candlelight Revolution.
Y: What is the priority of US peace organizations?
E: It is complicated because of Trump. People who are well-informed about the situation in Korea are demanding a peace treaty for Korea. We created a People’s Peace Treaty for Americans to sign demanding that the US government conclude a peace treaty with North Korea.
We have many problems, including Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Iran. There is a chance of a new war in Iran. There are so many issues that we must work on at the same time.
Many people want to impeach Trump since he is doing so many illegal things. We do need a different leader, but Mike Pence would be the new president if Trump were impeached, and he is against peace in Korea. He is a real militarist.
How about Japanese discrimination against Koreans? How do you feel about that? Many Korean progressives have not trusted Japanese progressives in the past. Some Koreans have told me that discrimination against Koreans in Japan is really bad, and I agree. For example, this year, a Korean man was stabbed in the stomach in a convenience store, but the mass media ignored it. At Chongryon, the North Korean community center in Tokyo, two Japanese men drove by in a car and shot at the building. For two or three days, hardly anyone was talking about it even though this was an act of terrorism. How do you feel about this discrimination?
Y: I could speak all day long about this issue.
E: The reason I ask is because few people in Japan really care about North and South Korea, even when we were talking about a nuclear war last year—the most dangerous possible thing that could happen–and Japanese lives are in danger. Yet, very few people outside a small number in the peace movement are demanding that Abe pursue diplomacy with Kim Jong-un.
Y: I have some experience with Korean-Japanese youth/students who are 3rd or 4th generation Zainichi. I was curious about why these people, who were born in Japan, are trying to learn Korean. They speak Japanese as their first language, yet they still try to learn Korean. Why are they in the situation where they need to learn it? Their very existence is proof of the history between Korea and Japan [i.e., of Japanese colonialism]. So for Japan, this history is something that they want to hide and don’t want to show other people. They don’t want to admit that they did these things in the past. I do not think that the Japanese government is really trying to eliminate discrimination.
Korean laborers were forced by colonial Japan to move to Japan and live there. They went to Japan before Korea was divided. After the division, they were forced to choose between North and South Korea, but that is a hard decision. They are victims of a crazy international situation.
The long economic recession has made the Japanese government turn people’s attention away from the economy and outwards and blame their economic problems on the people of other countries so that they don’t focus on their own internal issues. By focusing people’s attention on issues outside of Japan, the government of Japan can prevent Japanese from thinking about their own internal social conflicts. This is similar to the South Korean situation, where some conservative Korean organizations are hostile toward migrant workers and refugees.
E: Back to the Candlelight Revolution, I read a book about it in English [i.e., Mi Park, South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution: The Power of Plaza Democracy (Coal Harbour, 2018)], and the author emphasized two factors causing Koreans to stand up and resist the Park Geun-hye administration: 1. The fact that Park Geun-hye was trying to rewrite history in the textbooks, and the deal she made with Abe concerning the “comfort women” issue. She was helping Abe to silence women who were standing up for women’s rights; and 2. Class inequalities in South Korea. Park was aiding the rich and powerful and ignoring the needs of the majority of the population. That’s my understanding. But what is your perspective on this question? What made people angry and brought them into the streets?
Y: I basically agree. The starting point was anger over the rewriting of textbooks. Almost 300 youth came together to protest. They organized two back-to-back overnight demonstrations, and many reporters came. That was the beginning of the candlelight movement. Other groups joined, including school teachers.
Before 2015 and 2016, mostly progressive organizations were involved. The first mass assembly was in November 2015. 130,000 people came to that assembly. At that time, it was very hard to gather so many people. Of course, the movement later grew, but for 2015, that was a huge number of people.
Social and economic inequality were at the core of the people’s concerns. Lee Myung-bak was in power from 2008 to 2013. The gap between the rich and poor was becoming larger and larger. That caused economic conflicts. That economic gap led labor unions and farmers movements to stand up and say they cannot live like this. Many things were being privatized. People were losing their jobs. The Park Geun-hye administration disbanded the Unified Progressive Party.
The Unified Progressive Party (UPP; Korean: 통합진보당; Chinese characters: 統合進步黨) is a banned political party in South Korea. It was founded on 5 December 2011 as a merger of the Democratic Labor Party, the People’s Participation Party of Rhyu Si-min, and a faction of the New Progressive Party.
People from disadvantaged groups in society were saying, “We have the right to live.” Up until that time, support for Park Geun-hye had never gone below 30%. Many people who had supported Park Geun-hye were not rich or powerful. They respected Park Geun-hye as the daughter of Park Chung-hee. But after the Sewol Tragedy in 2014, the percentage of supporters went down. People were angry at how the government mishandled the tragedy.
People were having a hard time making ends meet. “Hell Joseon” and “dirt spoon” became popular terms. The idea of the “dirt spoon” was that once you are given it, there is no escaping poverty. Many people wanted to leave Korea. It was a hellish environment, and they lost hope.
People heard the progressive organizations’ message and said, “Why not join? Let’s meet up.”
The government was spying on the people. Intelligence officers were manipulating people by pretending that they were ordinary citizens and posting messages on social media to sway public opinion.
During a mass protest in 2015, an old farmer was hit on the head with a high-pressure water cannon. He eventually died after being in a coma for a year. During his funeral, news broke about Park Geun-hye’s confidante and “shadow ruler” Choi Soon-sil and the corruption surrounding their relationship. This helped to spark the uprising. Fuel for the fire [of the non-violent Candlelight Revolution] was already there on the ground, ready to be ignited.
Economic issues, social issues, how the government treated the citizens—these are some of the major reasons.
E: How about President Moon Jae-in? Is he brave enough and strong enough to stand up to the United States? Will he fight for independence? Will he push Trump? Is he a real fighter?
Y: I don’t think that he will really fight on his own. From my point of view, President Moon is not really progressive. He is in a progressive party, but he is not for radical changes. It is up to the people in the social movements to push him. They can see from the 2014 disbanding of the Unified Progressive Party how power operates. Once they realize that it is possible to make their power do something… If many people demonstrate for their true demands, they can move President Moon to take action.
E: How important is feminism for democratic movements in South Korea? In the States the majority of activists are not really feminists. Feminists are a minority. I don’t think that the majority appreciate the importance of feminism. Feminism has a role to play in reducing the level of violence, for example.
Y: The #MeToo Movement is growing in Korea. There is some history behind the movement here. At the Gangnam subway station, a woman was murdered at a public restroom on May 17, 2016. It was a huge issue in Korea. Many people were afraid that they too might become a victim of violence. They said to each other, “You felt it? I felt it, too.” They were thinking about the victim.
According to “Misogyny in South Korea: Murder in Gangnam,” the incident occurred in a privileged part of Seoul, so it must have been shocking that a woman was not safe even there. And South Korea is a society that enjoys an extremely low rate of violent crime. “I did it because women have always ignored me” is what the murderer said. There was a candlelight vigil in response to this tragedy. But the police and many others rejected the claim that this was a case of misogyny.
Even before the #MeToo movement, some things had happened at universities. In one case, a photographer did not tell a model that he he was going to make her nude photos public. This, too, was a big issue.
These incidents opened people’s eyes about the rights of women. This brought Korean feminism to a new level and mobilized a new generation into action. A new type of movement is taking shape. There are good possibilities there. There are many marginalized people, women and youth, and they feel more confident now, that it is OK to speak out in public about how their rights have been violated. This could lead to new types of civil society movements.
E: How many of the Candlelight participants were women? Like 30%? Can you give me a rough idea? All together 1.7 million people participated in the Candlelight Revolution?
Y: Yes, 1.7 million participated in the candlelight revolution. As far as how many of the participants were women, we could not count because so many people participated. We saw a lot of families with their children. In general, social movements are still dominated by men, but recently more women leaders are playing a role.
E: I think that US labor unions are not very strong. That is one of the weak points in the States. How important will the labor movement be for South Korean democracy in the future?
Y: I myself am not in the labor movement. I was in the student movement and the youth movement. So I cannot judge how strong the labor movement is in Korea, but we cannot deny the importance of the 30-year history of the labor movement since the 1980s. The labor movement history is the history of South Korean democracy. That was the first step. Recently, society is changing. The most pressing issues are those of youth and irregular workers. Most of the people who were involved in the first generation of the labor movement were regular workers [i.e. stable, full-time jobs with benefits]. Now, there are so many workers who do not have regular jobs. Organizing youth and irregular workers is a real challenge now.
E: It seems that the name “Gwanghwamun” fits the Candlelight Revolution so well. [“Gwanghwamun Square” is the name of the square where the Seoul Candlelight Revolution protests were held. “Gwanghwamun” is the name of the gate at the top of the square, that is actually a long rectangle. There are three Chinese characters: Gwang or “light,” hwa or “change,” and mun or “gate,” so the name of the gate could be read as “The Gate of Light Change”].
Y: I agree that the name “Gwanghwamun” fits the Candlelight Revolution.
E: What is the history of this name?
Y: Former President Lee Myung-bak blockaded people so that they could not reach the Gwanghwamun Gate during the protests against U.S. beef imports in 2008. Long ago, Gwanghwamun was the south gate of the castle. King Sejong (1397–1450), the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty, changed the name to Gwanghuamun. There was the sense that only people who are righteous can enter (正 or “correct” or “right”). The name Gwanghuamun is related to wisdom. It was thought that the king needed to have bright wisdom that could spread throughout his kingdom. I have seen writings about the origins of this name. It winds up being something like “bringing light to the people.”
E: So it is a concept related to Confucianism?
Y: Yes. In past periods as well as today, people have come here to make their appeals, to make requests to the king or the government. That is the kind of place that it has become.
E: Is the term “Plaza Democracy” a good way to describe the form of contemporary South Korean democracy?
Y: Yes, the plaza and the people cannot be separated.
E: In Japan, demonstrations tend to be small. Why do you think that demonstrations in Japan are small? What is the difference between Koreans and Japanese that leads to different sizes in demonstrations? Is it because Japan is a rich country and they don’t feel the need to protest?
Y: I don’t see many youth in Japanese social movements. Most people there have become old now, especially in peace organizations. That’s one problem.
The other question is, “Do they have organizations that can organize? Are they still alive?” In Korea we can mobilize many people. Japanese activists do not seem to have the ability to mobilize.
This might be a cultural difference. Koreans saw the candlelight vigils as their own. They see participating in events like the Candlelight Revolution as their own event. They cared about the people participating. People gathered much money for these events. At one time, we needed 100 million won, but people donated 1.2 billion won.
E: The 2002 and 2008 incidents both involved the US, but few Americans have heard about those incidents. How do you feel about US imperialism, dominance, and our country’s arrogant attitude?
Y: Most people in South Korea do not know about atrocities committed by Korean troops in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. They need to be educated. I don’t think it is the fault of ordinary people that they don’t know their country’s history.
E: In your opinion, is the real fight in Washington, DC? Or should we be coming to South Korea and working with activists here to bring attention to the border that is dividing this country, a border that the US is mainly responsible for?
Y: Motivating people in the US by having Americans come to South Korea and working with Koreans would be wonderful. It would be good to see Americans taking responsibility to repair their relationship with South Koreans.
(Ms. Yoon’s Facebook page is here).
Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology whose research has focused on Japanese literature and history. For many years he has been engaged with Japanese peace organizations and in his writing has recently focused on such organizations’ achievements and the need for global cooperation in resolving East Asian regional conflicts.