After months of mass protests that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, South Korea now has a new administration. Where does the mass movement go from here?

ZoominKorea asked labor, LGBT, and peace/reunification activists in South Korea about their expectations for the Moon Jae-in administration as well as movement priorities in this new period.

Part 1: “Candlelight must continue for peace and reunification”

Ju Jejun is the Policy Director of the Korean Alliance of Progressive Movements. He was also the Director of Policy and Planning for the Emergency Citizen Action to Oust Park Geun-hye, a coalition of 2300 citizens groups that organized the mass candlelight protests that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye.

1.  What’s your reaction to Moon Jae-in’s election?

It was made possible through people power. It was the outcome of seven months of mass candlelight protests that demanded Park Geun-hye’s ouster—a movement that was fueled by the ongoing struggles for justice for the Sewol tragedy victims and farmer Baek Nam-gi.

Voter turnout for this year’s presidential election was over 77%, the highest in twenty years. The surge in voter turnout, which had been on a steady decline for the past twenty years, is due to widespread desire for systemic change—fueled by the mass protests and the rapid recent turn of events starting with Park’s “Choi Soon-sil gate,” followed by Park’s impeachment by the National Assembly last December and the Constitutional Court’s decision to uphold the impeachment in March.

Out of 17 electoral districts in South Korea, Moon Jae-in took first place in all except for the North and South Gyeonsang Provinces and the Daegu metropolitan area. His defeat of right-wing candidate Hong Joon-pyo (24.03%) by 557,938 votes was also made possible by the candlelight protests.

Park Geun-hye had won the previous presidential election in 2012 with 51.6% of the votes. In this year’s election, Hong Joon-pyo only garnered 24%, which means public support for the conservative party dropped nearly 30%. Even if you combine Hong’s votes with the 6.8% garnered by the moderate conservative Yoo Seong-min, their total is still 20% less than the conservative vote in the previous election. The people have delivered a stern judgment on the forces of corruption.

Although Moon was elected by the people, whether he will be assertive in rooting out corruption and carrying out the social reforms desired by the people and the candlelight forces remains a question mark. This concern rises from Moon’s general rightward shift in the lead-up to the election.

2. Do you think Moon will establish a North Korea policy that is independent from the United States?

President Moon’s pledges regarding reunification are, in summary: 1) Resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and no war on the Korean peninsula; 2) Implementation of the “New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula”; 3) North-South market integration and gradual reunification; 4) National Assembly ratification of basic agreements between the North and South; 5) Resolution for divided families, prisoners of war and victims of kidnapping, and improvement of North Korean human rights; 6) Revitalization of North-South social, cultural and athletic exchanges.

The core of Moon’s Korean peninsula policy is said to be maintaining peace on the peninsula by dismantling the new Cold War order in Northeast Asia and constructing a multilateral system of cooperation. Rather than implementing the September 19 (2005) joint declaration, adopted during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, to continue sanctions and pressure against North Korea, Moon, many expect, will aim to resolve the crisis through dialogue and pursue simultaneous negotiations on denuclearization and the creation of a peace mechanism on the Korean peninsula.

It’s clear that he will be more assertive than the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations in pursuing North-South dialogue, exchange and cooperation.

On the other hand, in contrast to the Roh Moo-hyun administration, President Moon has repeatedly emphasized the US-ROK alliance as the axis of South Korea’s foreign policy. The late President Roh Moo-hyun had pledged during his campaign that he would say “No” to the United States, but Moon seems to be emphasizing the importance of the US-ROK alliance in an effort to dispel concerns that his administration’s relationship with the United States will be “Roh Moo-hyun redux.” It appears that Moon may be more pro-U.S. than the former Roh Moo-hyun administration.

Taking all this into consideration, it appears unlikely that the Moon administration will push forward progress in North-South relations without agreement from or coordination with the United States. On the other hand, he seems determined not to be bullied around by the United States on pressing security issues, such as the North’s nuclear weapons, THAAD, and transfer of wartime operational control. Most likely, he will first seek progress in the areas of people-to-people exchanges and economic cooperation between the North and South.

3. How do you think the THAAD issue will be resolved?

The THAAD issue is a very complicated one. As the Moon administration considers the US-ROK alliance very important, it will not be easy to reverse the THAAD deployment, which the United States seems intent on completing. On the other hand, Moon cannot ignore the demands of the people as his election was the outcome of the mass candlelight protests.

Another factor is China. Due to China’s retaliatory measures against the THAAD deployment, the relationship between South Korea and China is the worst it’s ever been, and restoring trust with China is an urgent task for the Moon administration. It’s a very complicated situation, and the knot will be tightened at the upcoming US-South Korea summit.

Moon and Trump will probably meet at the G20 summit in Germany in early July, but even before that, President Moon will visit the United States for a summit with Trump. Trump will be firm in moving forward with the THAAD deployment and will probably demand the deployment of the four additional missile launchers that are currently in South Korea but not yet deployed in Seongju. He will probably reiterate his demand that South Korea pay $1 billion for the THAAD system.

The Moon administration will not accept all of Trump’s demands and will probably offer a compromise. But Moon will, it seems, ultimately accept the THAAD deployment. That is why it’s very important to continue to organize and educate to build a mass movement against the THAAD deployment.

With enough public pressure, the Moon administration may temporarily halt the THAAD deployment as it was carried out without an environmental impact assessment and use the procedural violation as grounds to delay the deployment. This may also have the effect of appeasing China. In the end, people power will be the decisive factor in determining the outcome of the THAAD issue.

4. Will the mass candlelight protests that ousted Park continue under the new administration?

As mentioned before, it was the candlelight protests that made Moon Jae-in president. Uprooting corruption and moving on to major social reform will also be made possible through people power.

The liberal democratic Minjoo Party, which is now the governing party, only has 120 seats in the National Assembly—far less than the 150 required to be the majority. This means we have to move public consciousness, and that has to be the basis for pushing forward reforms in the media, the judiciary and the National Intelligence Service as well as democratic policies to guarantee the people’s livelihood. Without people power, we cannot push forward reform measures in the National Assembly. The conservative Liberty Korea and Baruen parties will obstruct every measure for reform.

Starting in the fall, the National Assembly will probably be engulfed in a feud about constitutional reform. That’s because in the lead-up to the election, all the presidential candidates agreed to putting the question of revising the constitution to a national referendum in next year’s local elections. The problem is the current debate on constitutional reform and whether to change the political system to a parliamentary system, a semi-presidential system, or a two 4-year term presidential system has nothing to do with—and in fact distracts from—serious discussions on improving the livelihood of the people.

Although the new administration was put in place through the candlelight protests, we can’t rest easy and be sure that it won’t betray the people. Ultimately, we will have to raise our candles once again on the streets and in the squares. With the same confidence we had when we dragged Park Geun-hye from power, the people will raise their candles once again for transformation of the entire country.

5. What are the top priorities of the peace and reunification movement in the Moon Jae-in era?

Stopping the THAAD deployment will be our main priority.

We will also devote all our resources to realizing a pan-national gathering for reunification led by civilians of the North, South and overseas, and including the participation of government authorities.

We will also launch a campaign for the realization of a Peace Treaty and demand the Moon administration follow through on its pledge of holding a North-South summit.

Continued in Part 2: Nayoung, Executive Director of Network for Glocal Activism/School of Feminism discusses Moon’s troubling stance on LGBT human rights and sexual violence against gay officers in the military.

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