On November 19, New York City community organizer Yul-san Liem and artist-activist Sehwan Kim joined the mass demonstration to demand the ouster of Park Geun-hye in Seoul. Liem and Kim provided on-site live updates and wrote a report summarizing the day of action and their view of the current state of the people’s movement to oust Park Geun-hye.

On November 19, approximately 600,000 Koreans gathered for a candlelight vigil in Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul to call for an end to Park Geun-hye’s presidency. According to announcements made by organizers that evening, 300,000 more participated in protests in other parts of the country. The action was the fourth candlelight protest since the revelation of widespread corruption within Park’s administration.

The protest was called for by an alliance of pre-existing and new coalitions (박근혜정권 퇴진을 위한 비상국민) in which workers and farmers are leading players. Additionally, many other movement forces and sectors are part of the alliance including the families of the victims of the Sewol Tragedy and those organizing for justice for Baek Nam-gi. Organized forces, however, were by no means the only ones present at the demonstration on November 19. As with the mass demonstrations held in the previous weeks over the last month, there was a significant presence of Koreans of all ages not affiliated with any civil society organization or workers’ union.

Protesters gathered in Gwanghwamun Plaza; Photo - Yul-san Liem and Sehwan Kim
Jumbotron in Seoul showing 20,000 people protesting in Changwon City; Photo - Yul-san Liem and Sehwan Kim
Jumbotron in Seoul showing 4,000 people protesting on Jeju Island; Photo - Yul-san Liem and Sehwan Kim

Schedule of the Day:

During the day, there were various rallies and smaller marches throughout Seoul leading up to the mass gathering in Gwanghwamun Plaza.

4pm: Gathering time at Gwanghwamun

4pm to 5pm: Rally for justice for Sewol tragedy victims

5pm to 6pm: Open mic

6pm to 7:30pm: Main rally

7:30pm to 9:30pm: Marches throughout the city, towards the Blue House

9:30pm to late-night: Rallies and open mics at different locations

Photo - Yul-san Liem and Sehwan Kim
Sign reads: "Arrest the President"; Photo - Yul-san Liem and Sehwan Kim

Issues Discussed

While the main slogan of the action was “Park Geun Hye Resign,” speakers (both organizaational and union representatives as well as individuals) brought up a range of issues, some of which included:

  • Deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Missile System in South Korea
  • The recent developments on the South Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the fact that the Park Geun-hye administration resumed procedures to officialize this agreement with no transparency
  • Various workers struggles like metal workers
  • The corruption of chaebols and their manipulation of the government
  • The Sewol Ferry Disaster and the failure of the government to save the lives of 300 people who perished from the sinking; specifically the question of what Park was doing during the first 7 hours after the ship began to sink
  • Students and teachers being pressured by school administrations to not participate in demonstrations and exercise their right to freedom of expression
  • Artists, activist bands, choirs and hip hop groups
Candlelight with writing - "#Corporate Elites ("chaebols") are also accomplices"; Photo - Yul-san Liem and Sehwan Kim
Signs read: "Step Down Park Geun-hye! Park Geun-hye immediately resign"; Photo - Yul-san Liem and Sehwan Kim

Observations

  • Police Presence and Protest Dynamics: The action was fully permitted and peaceful. There were very few cops at the opening rally and during the march. There were riot cops closer to the Blue House, but they kept their distance from protesters and remained partially hidden. We did not see nor hear of any confrontation with the police. Counter-protesters were also not visible to us at any point in the day or night. The opening rallies were very orderly (considering so many people), with everyone sitting in rows, attentively listening, chanting, etc. According to local organizers, the recent death of the farmer Baek Nam-ki, who was hit by a police water cannon during a protest last year and put into a coma, has made both cops and movement forces have been wary of escalated tactics.
  • Everyday Voices: Along with programmed rallies, there were several “open mics,” including one prior to the march and several others in different locations after it, which were aimed at giving everyday people opportunities to be heard. Youth voices were especially prominent throughout the entire day.
  • Support from Seoul’s Mayor: Interestingly, Seoul’s mayor had made arrangements with local businesses to allow protesters access to bathrooms, and there were youth assigned to pointing the way to them.
  • Integration of Arts and Culture: The opening rally included a well-integrated mix of speeches and music (including familiar movement songs, as well as hip hop). 
  • Challenges and Opportunities: The common denominator message of South Korea’s people’s movement right now is that Park Geun-hye should resign. On November 19, various organizational and union representatives brought up other social, political and economic issues and connected them to the Park corruption scandal. While most people listened with support and understanding, some voiced frustration at hearing about these other issues. At the same time, there was very little discussion of “what we are fighting for (verus against)” – i.e. a common platform or options for who will fill the gaps if and when Park and members of her administration step down. The Park corruption scandal and the mass uprising surrounding it constitute a major movement-building opportunity for South Korea, one that can only fully be realized if movement forces are able to unify around and present a common vision and the steps that are needed to get there.

 

Yul-san Liem is a community organizer working in the police accountability movement in New York City. Liem is Co-Director of the Justice Committee, a grassroots organization dedicated to building a movement against police violence and systemic racism.

Sehwan Kim is an artist and activist currently residing in New York City.

 

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