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One year on, Koreans remember candlelight movement

  • Ock Hyun-ju

    The Korea Herald/ANN

Seoul   /   Sun, October 29, 2017   /   01:23 am
One year on, Koreans remember candlelight movement The National Assembly in Seoul, a day prior to the impeachment in a 2016 file photo. (The Korea Herald/ANN/ Son Ji-hyoung)

A year after South Koreans began to take to the streets in protest against their corruption-ridden leader, they still vividly remember the historic moment they removed former President Park Geun-hye from power over a corruption scandal. 

While the sense of victory still remains, an estimated 50,000 people, according to the rally organizers, gathered again in central Seoul to urge the Moon Jae-in administration to continue its efforts to root out “deep-rooted evils” to complete what they call the “Candlelight Revolution.”The demonstrators renewed calls for a wide range of political, social and economic reforms.

“I think the candlelight vigils showed Korean people hope that this unfair society could change through our actions. I came here to celebrate it,” Choi Mi-young, 38, said at Gwanghwamun Square, the main site of last year’s demonstrations.

“The candles should continue to be lit to remind the Moon administration that it should work for Korean people,” said Choi, who joined the candlelight rallies a few times last year. 

The candlelight movement began on Oct. 29 last year with some 30,000 people protesting against then-President Park Geun-hye in the face of allegations that she let her friend Choi Soon-sil involve herself in state affairs despite having no formal government position. 

The anti-Park rally grew week after week in its scale as more Koreans became enraged by the series of revelations implicating Park. An estimated 2.32 million people poured onto the streets in the sixth rally on Dec. 3, making it the largest protest in the nation’s history. 

The movement eventually led the divided parliament to impeach her on Dec. 9 and the Constitutional Court finalized her expulsion from power on March 13. Through some 23 rallies, a cumulative 17 million people joined some 23 rallies over a six-month period. 

Park is on trial accused of abusing her presidential power and colluding with her friend Choi Soon-sil to receive bribes from conglomerates, including Samsung Group. She recently boycotted her own trial, calling it “a political retaliation in the name of law.” 

On Saturday, the rally participants demand the government fix things they believe have long gripped the country – ranging from corrupt ties between politicians and business tycoons to an economic and social system that benefits only the rich.  

Their demands include a thorough investigation into former President Lee Myung-bak, Park’s predecessor suspected of using the nation’s spy agency to meddle in the 2012 presidential election in favor of Park and crack down on liberals. 

Throughout the rally, they held up placards reading “Arrest Lee Myung-bak,” “Reform the National Intelligence Service” and “The completion of the Candlelight Movement is political reform.” 

“For me, I realized I had to care more about social and political issues. For Korean society, I think it was a starting point to make society more equal to everyone,” Kim Hyun-kyung, 42, who came with her child. “I will keep a close tab on the government and take action if necessary.”

Under the slogan of “Candle continues,” the rally at Gwanghwamun Square began at around 6 p.m.

Like last fall and winter, there were families pushing prams with their young children inside, friends taking selfies with the participants in the background and groups of activists carrying flags and banners.  

A stage was set up on Gwanghwamun Square, videos showing scenes of candlelit protests from a year ago were displayed and speeches by activists and rally participants were made. Several musicians, including Jeon In-kwon Band and Kwon Jin-won, also performed onstage.  

Before the main event, many civic groups -- speaking up for the disabled, students, irregular workers and sexual minorities, among other groups – held rallies at separate locations to get their various messages across. 

Some of them expressed their opposition to the US President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit scheduled for Nov. 7-8, campaigning for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

“Regardless of what we want, Trump talks of the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula. We are an independent country. Trump treats our land, our sea and our air space like it is the US property,” said Catholic priest Father Moon Jeong-hyeon near the US Embassy. 

“The US acts as if it is occupying South Korea. The US is a country that causes war. It is the axis of evil,” he said. 

A separate event to mark the first anniversary of the protests was organized in front of the National Assembly, revealing what appeared to be a rift among the people who once held up candles together to unseat Park.

Some 10,000 participants, mostly supporters of President Moon, boycotted the main event at Gwanghwamun Square in defiance of the organizing committee’s decision to march toward the presidential office. 

They argue that the candles should head to the National Assembly building for its inaction on proposed reforms, not President Moon. Criticism should particularly be directed at the conservative opposition parties blocking passages of key reform bills, they said. 

“I think the meaning of candles was distorted by groups of left-wing civic groups there. I feel like they are using the candle-holding citizens to serve their own interests,” said Jeon Young-ok, 59, while marching toward the headquarters of the main opposition Korea Liberty Party in western Seoul.

“President Moon is doing well now. I think we should support him to achieve what he intended to do step by step,” she said. 

The Gwanghwamun rally organizers quit their plan for a march, though labor unions still went ahead with the plan from 8:30 p.m. 

Marking the first anniversary of the massive candlelit protests that paved the way for him to take office, President Moon on Saturday highlighted his policy push to uphold the spirit of the candlelight vigils and root out corruption.

 "Although there could be varying opinions on how, everybody can be like-minded when it comes to the cause to eradicate long-lived (social) evils," Moon said during his meeting with Korean businessmen from overseas.

When some hailed the candlelight movement as a symbol of democracy or victory for the people, others dismissed it as a political tool for North Korean sympathizers seeking to overthrow the liberal democracy. 

Only hundreds meters away from Gwanghwamun Square, avid Park supporters, mostly senior citizens, also staged a rally from the afternoon in the central area encompassing Gwanghwamun interchange through Seoul Plaza to Namdaemun gate.

Since Park was ousted, they have held rallies to defend Park and demand her release from jail. They have argued that the candlelight movement was organized by North Korean sympathizers and joined by those brainwashed by “pro-North Korea leftists.” (dmr)