[Cover Story] Down with the President!
President Park’s support ratings have sunk to 4% nationwide and 0% in the southwest, as well as 0% with those in their 20s and 30s. Public outrage has forced the mainstream opposition parties, as well as thirty two assembly persons from her own party, towards the ⅔ vote necessary to initiate impeachment. Amongst the public, the scandal has provoked protests with numbers in the hundreds of thousands every weekend. On Nov. 19, 1.2 million showed up in the heart of Seoul to call for Park’s impeachment, equal to the protests of 1987 that brought an end to the country’s dictatorship. Nov. 26 brought 1.6 million to Seoul and 2 million in total nationwide, making it the largest concentrated gathering in Korean history. Protesters ranged from toddlers with parents to middle school to college students, and included even the elderly. The spontaneous nature of this movement has even led to the coining of a new term for individuals attending a protest on their own: honchamro - the protest equivalent of the lone eater. New evidence keeps emerging about the complete corruption and abuse of power that Park committed. As her presidency crumbles under the weight of public pressure, what will the crisis mean for those seeking deeper social transformation?
Calls for President Park’s impeachment started soon after she took office in 2012 after it was revealed that the National Intelligence Service had meddled in the elections on her behalf, a crime equal in magnitude to that which sparked the Watergate scandal for US President Nixon. They grew in size and volume with the botched rescue of the Sewol ferry. Grief turned to anger and anger to fury as the president averted and blocked every attempt at uncovering the truth and punishing those responsible for the tragedy. The chorus of protestations grew with President Park’s privatization of the public sector and her weakening of labor conditions. It intensified further with the death of 70-year-old farmer Baek Nam Ki shot by police water cannon during protests over the price of Korean rice. There had always been a sector of society directly impacted by the president and who felt deeply discontented with (even betrayed) by her.
Yet it was the Choi Soon Sil scandal that turned Park from an unpopular president into an illegitimate one. If the first nick to her legitimacy began with suspicions that she’d helped a close friend collect funds from conglomerates for personal slush funds, then such nick spread into a deep crack when further investigations uncovered that the president had helped Choi’s daughter get preferential treatment at an elite Korean woman’s university. The deeper investigators probed, the clearer the all-encompassing the connection between Choi and President Park became. Nothing appeared free from Choi’s influence whether policies, top secrets, government posts, or favors for corporations and individuals. As the full extent of corruption and power abuse was revealed, the public, who had initially been irked by the whiff of corruption reported in the news, became first dumbfounded, then ashamed by the great depths of the scandal. That first weekend, 200,000 people came to Seoul to protest. Shame soon mixed with anger at President Park’s betrayal of Korea’s representative democracy: the president was supposed to represent the people, not Choi and her entourage. The president’s half-hearted apologies and lies only served to stoke the public’s anger and outrage. That weekend, 1.2 million came to protest in Seoul. The president’s unwillingness to be investigated despite her earlier promises of full compliance led to protests by another 950,000 nationwide. Driven by rumblings in their conscience, assured by the safety and festive nature of the protests, more and more people spill into the streets every weekend despite the cold and even snow. The protests have become a mash-up of agora, k-pop concert, and massive open-mic. Stuck with a clearly illegitimate president unwilling to step down and an opposition party too timid to impeach her, it has become the moral duty of the public to keep coming out and prod the opposition parties into action and dislodge the president from office. The latest manifestation on Nov. 26 involved an estimated 2 million people (4% of the population) coming out to the streets nationwide.
Can such a massive mobilization of Korean society lead to deep fundamental change? Undoubtedly, even if President Park steps down or is impeached, many questions will still have to be answered: What about companies like Samsung, who contributed funds to Choi’s foundations and got a massive social security tax write-off? Or even worse, was there any connection between these contributions and President Park’s announcement the next day of labor reforms favorable to corporations and destructive to workers? What of the seven hours when 306 people were drowning in the Sewol Ferry? Was President Park really getting beauty treatments with Choi Soon Sil? Will public discontent spill into other policies and structures that immiserate people’s lives?
At present, the public’s attention and pressure is focused like a laser on President Park and her resignation. Resignation or impeachment will be followed by calls for constitutional reforms to prevent repetition of such incident. Yet for those of us that organize, this fight is about more than simply Park’s impeachment - it’s about the making of a better Korean society. This political crisis offers space to engage with family, irregular workers, farmers, young part-time workers, students, women, artists, and run-of the-mill strangers in the streets, and the opportunity to organize them. One thing is certain: the ousting of a president won by the power of the people will be akin to the moment people realized kings were but men - they can be brought down.
- The Watergate scandal involved wiretapping of the Democratic Party’s headquarters during the presidential election by President Richard Nixon. As impeachment of the president became imminent, President Nixon resigned.
- 306 people, overwhelmingly high school students, drowned died in the Sewol Ferry as the government failed to rescue the people trapped inside.
- Over two years later, the ferry - a key component in recovering some of the still missing bodies and uncovering the truth - has not yet been recovered from the bottom of the ocean.
- Agora refers to an open space where people assembled.