Sitting in Gwanghwamun square on December 31, the screen rapidly dialled up to 10 million as it added up the number of participants in the past 10 candlelight protests against the corrupt influence over President Park Geun-hye by powerful corporate interests.
Every Saturday evening for the last two months of 2016, people had come out in the streets calling for Park’s impeachment. On December 9, an impeachment motion had been passed in the National Assembly by an overwhelming vote.
The December 31 rally was followed by two separate marches, one to the presidential Blue House, the other to the constitutional court: a reminder that, whether villain or hero, the judges too were actors in this candlelight story. Yet, the protagonists resided not in the halls of power, but in the streets holding candles.
Now, a month and three candlelight protests into the new year, as the special prosecutor gears up to question Park and the constitutional court sets a March deadline for its verdict, the candlelight protests are achieving what many thought impossible: impeachment of the president.
In the process, the candlelight revolution is transforming Korean democracy and its people.
It was the candlelight protests that pushed politicians past the safeguards of the status quo towards impeachment. The candlelight protests began with demands for Park’s voluntary resignation.
As evidence of abuse of power, leaked state secrets, and bribery mounted against her, it became clear that neither a million, nor two million people protests were enough for her to step down. The chants for resignation changed to impeachment and incarceration.
However, elected representatives lagged behind public will. In fact, faced with the tremendous task before them, opposition parties grew timid and wavered.
As it became clear that Park would not step down no matter the political cost or size of the candlelight protests, calls for resignation turned into impeachment. As public outrage swelled, opposition parties jumped on the impeachment bandwagon.
Yet, just before the impeachment motion was to be introduced, Park publicly raised the prospect of a voluntary resignation by April. The anti-Park faction of the ruling party backed this option.
Faced with the prospect of insufficient votes without the anti-Park faction support for approval of the impeachment, the opposition wavered. The people mobilised: they blitzed the phones of individual members of the ruling Saenuri Party and protested outside their offices. The opposition was dragged back to the impeachment struggle.
The anti-Park faction also, once again, spoke of impeachment. Even the pro-Park faction made the crucial decision to allow members to vote at will.
Thus, on December 9, 234 assembly members voted for impeachment, far exceeding the needed 200 and including many from the pro-Park faction.
With the president stripped of her powers, the special prosecution no longer faced the daunting task of investigating a president will full powers.
The scandal over the corrupt influence of businessperson Choi Soon-Sil over Park may have initiated the process, but the impeachment process has involved broader issues. The candlelight protests created a space to revisit Park’s other misdeeds, in particular her deadliest: the Sewol ferry accident that killed 304.
Not only was the rescue under her watch a perfect storm of incompetence and negligence, but the investigation that followed was also plagued by repression and cover-up by a Park administration unwilling to reveal the truth or learn its lessons.
Despite its gravity, the Sewol ferry tragedy did not just naturally appear in the impeachment motion. Yoo Kyung-geun, a father of one of the high school victims and chair of the 4/16 Sewol Families for Truth and a Safer Society, has spoken of the sustained struggle to raise the issue within the candleight protests, then the effort involved in pressuring wavering opposition politicians to include it in the impeachment motion.
To anyone witnessing the candlelight protests first hand, it is clear that it is not just about impeaching Park but also about transforming Korean democracy and people. People came out in the millions to sit on the pavement in sub-zero temperature.
They came out with their unions and groups. Many simply came out with their families and friends. Students came out wearing their school uniforms, stirring the imagination about collective education through democratic action for the next generation.
The huge protests were organised by the People’s Emergency Action to Bring Down President Park, a coalition of 1500 groups. Ahn Jin Geol, a standing member of the operations committee, explains that the protest chants come from the grassroots up through their network of 1500 groups.
Being at the protests, it is clear that they are different in character from previous ones. The chants are militant, but the songs played are not the same militant songs usually heard in protests. Rather, they are rock concerts, from reggae rock to ballads. They not only entertain, but they also move and touch.
The constitutional court has announced it will deliver a verdict before March 13. All signs point to an impeachment, which means that a presidential election would be held by May.
Yet, a new president is not enough. “We can’t just demand a change in government, but we must call for deep fundamental reforms,” said Kim Jong-min, chair of the Seoul Branch of the Justice Party. How far this candlelight revolution goes will be determined by its protagonists.