Reflection on the Nov. 12 protest

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On Nov. 12, the ISC attended a protest in Gwanghwamun Square calling for President Park Geun-hye’s resignation. The Seoul Metro System estimated that around 1.2 million people attended the event, which spanned from 4 pm through the night. In the U.S., there is a pervasive perception that Asians are not political or politicized. This protest was a clear indication of the inaccuracy of this perception. Although I didn’t hold this view, I was still surprised and impressed by the outpouring of people. It demonstrated how seriously Koreans viewed this issue, and how ready they were to create change in their society. My first indication of the scale of the protest was how packed the train was. I spent most of the ride from Nambu Terminal to Gyeongbokgung Palace crammed among dozens of other people. While most people got off closer to City Hall, we decided to take the train to the palace. As soon as we left the train, it was clear that people were starting to gather. Everyone who walked by had a 박근혜 퇴진 (Park Geun-hye, Step Down!) sign. They ranged from families to young children to students to groups of older people.

Walking to meet up with others, the crowd was, at times, claustrophobic. Standing at just five feet tall, I couldn’t see ahead and was dragged along by the motion of the  crowd. It was difficult to find the rest of the group, but once we did, four of us broke away to interview attendees of the protest.

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(Guk Seung-hyun, photo by Lillian Hexter)

After scanning the area for someone who didn’t look too busy, we approached a young man calmly sitting on a crate outside a cafe holding a bright red sign. His name was Guk Seung-hyun. Guk had traveled to Seoul with his friends and said this was his first demonstration. When we asked why he had come to the protest, he answered that he had followed the National Assembly hearings and noticed the bad attitudes of high level officials. He concluded by saying that that this protest showed the accumulated anger of the Korean people and that it’s time for government officials to wake up.

 

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(Family, photo by Shane Bolen)

Next, we approached a father in his forties, Jo Ik-han, who was sipping coffee with his wife and two young children. He cradled the paper cup to keep his hands warm while we asked him what brought him to the protest. In a soft-spoken manner, he simply responded, “My children.” Jo explained to us that he wanted them to know there was a better future. When we asked to take their photo, they proudly held up their 박근혜 퇴진 posters.

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(Kim Yu-jin, photo by Shane Bolen)

Our last interview was with a high school girl, aged 14 named Kim Yu Jin, who was juggling two candles, a poster and a Korean flag. She had heard about the event from her father, who came to the protest with her. He had told her that this will be a historical moment for Korean society. Kim said she was disappointed with the President’s actions and even if she herself didn’t understand politics, she knew enough to understand that this was wrong. During the interview, her father, who had wandered away, quietly made his way back, hovering nearby. Throughout our brief interview, Kim talked with us in a confident manner, never deferring to her father — rather, she eagerly shared her own thoughts and opinions.

Notably, most of the people we spoke with had never been to a protest before that night. Park Geun-hye’s corruption, however, was too much for them. Evidently, the severity of the scandal drove many people to the streets, eager to add their voice and presence to the growing movement. It was uplifting to see the diversity of those who attended the protest because it demonstrated the way in which this movement is uniting people from all backgrounds,  all over the country. It was surprising how willingly people shared their thoughts. Almost everyone we approached was kind and eager to talk with us. None of them identified as activists but they felt an obligation to protest and to fight injustice in their country as ordinary citizens.

As a Korean American adoptee who is living in Korea for the first time, I was grateful for this opportunity to see Koreans in protest. Part of my desire to move to Seoul this past year was to better understand and immerse myself in this country that was such an important part of who I am, yet which I knew so little about. Throughout this scandal, I’ve seen many Koreans from my high school and college posting on Facebook about how proud they felt to be Korean at this moment in history, and I realized that I felt the same. In many ways, because I do not speak Korean nor did I grow up in Korea or with a Korean family, I feel like I cannot fully participate in or understand this ongoing political struggle. Though I am interested in what is happening as a Korean adoptee and current resident of Korea, I still feel like an outsider— observing a society that I have never been a part of. Nevertheless, while I could not understand most of what was said at the protest without translation, I felt a deep sense of pride to have been born in a country that is fighting for its voice to be heard.

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(Candles, photo by Lillian Hexter)

By Lillian Hexter (Editor, World Current Report)