What happens after the candlelight revolution?
by Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, The [su:p])
17 million people in the span of 7 months carried out 23 large scale candlelight mobilizations and brought down a president. Student protests around preferential treatment at a liberal arts woman’s university sparked a scandal that would engulf the whole government on corruption and abuse of power from the president to the prosecutors charged with investigating and prosecuting these charges. As the president’s actions discredited and disgraced her with even the conservatives, the candlelight vigils smashed through the 40% “cement base” of the conservatives plummeting to the single digits. People came out by the millions including those that’d never gone to a protest before. The news became interesting and relevant as people were the news and as their actions changed Korean society. They became the protagonists of society and the antagonists starred not just President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil and her clique but also greedy, corrupt CEOs. When new presidential elections were achieved, the presidential candidates took the center stage. On May 9, the government was changed as the liberal opposition candidate Moon Jae-in was elected. What happens now after the people successfully deposed one president and elected another one? What happens after people put down their candles and return to daily life? Or rather, since the future is being written, maybe the question should be what should happen?
The election results revealed a complicated picture of Korean society. At 41%, Moon won with a 17% lead to the runner up. Yet, despite the severity of President Park’s crimes, 24% voted for the runner up – the unapologetic conservative Hong Joon-pyo – revealing that despite the candlelight protests, conservatives are still socially relevant. At the same time, the candlelight protests also lifted the progressive Justice Party to win 6.7%, the highest vote for a progressive presidential candidate. 1
Starting May 10, Moon’s administration has been in a flurry of activity calling investigations to the costly and environmentally destructive Four River Project by the Lee Administration, the National Intelligence Services intervention in the 2012 presidential election, the Sewol Tragedy by the Park Administration, the Park scandal itself. His administration has issued presidential decrees creating a jobs committee, planning the regularization of government workers, sending special emissaries to Japan, China, Russia, and the US, and promising a two track policy 2 that includes engagement with North Korea. He has promised to half the Blue House’s discretionary funds 3 and invest it in the creation of youth jobs. He plans to increase income taxes by increasing taxes on the wealthiest tax bracket from 40 to 42% and lowering the threshold from those making 500 million won (~440,000$) to those making 300 million won (~263,000$). His administration is promising to put constitutional amendments into a referendum to be voted alongside the regional elections in June of 2018 that would involve a reform of the prosecution ending its monopoly on justice by taking away its power of investigation and entrusting it with just prosecution.
With 81% approval ratings 4, these action are winning over not only those that didn’t vote for him, but even some of those that voted for the unapologetic conservative candidate. It is easy to be intoxicated by the exuberance. Yet, it’s important to remember that before the candlelight revolution, mass layoffs and irregular workers were introduced by the liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun (in which Moon served as a top aide and then chief of staff). This should serve as warning that social movements and the candlelight public need to guard this candlelight revolution.
President Moon’s employment committee meant to increase the quantity and quality of jobs has been criticized for failing to include or consult with labor representatives. His plan to regularize irregular workers at Incheon airport would involve a pay cut. As regards Thaad, he has promised to investigate the previous administration’s implementation of Thaad and to go through the proper legal procedures. While this opens up political space for those opposing Thaad, Moon has yet to reveal whether or not he supports Thaad. Furthermore, U.S. President Trump has stated that he wants to renegotiate the US-Korea free trade agreement. It was President Roh Moo-hyun where Moon served as a top-aide and chief of staff that passed the U.S.-Korea FTA. The Korean Peasants League has come out and protested the continuation of the import of rice for direct consumption by the Moon adminstration. In fact, as Moon gets closer to the fundamental problems of South Korean society – neoliberalist policies and relations with the U.S. – it may be when he starts to reach the limits and even will to change Korean society.
50,000 people showed up to the last candlelight vigil on April 29. On May 24, the coordinating committee for the candlelight vigils officially disbanded. While it is unclear when Korean society will reach the level of mobilization of the candlelight protests, it is clear that public consciousness has changed. Recently, conservative opposition party assembly members that nitpicked and attempted to block approval of the prime minister were targeted with over ten thousand text messages to their personal phone numbers. Dubbed the text protests, they were the result of an increased interest, scrutiny and protagonism by the candlelight public. While such energy has helped Moon get approval for the appointment of his prime minister, it can also serve become a two edged sword.
Moon is well placed to achieve great reforms. Not only has he been given a mandate for change by the candlelight protests, but he has also consolidated support within his party. 5Thus, social movements and the candlelight public must empower Moon to achieve deep reforms, cheering, pushing, pulling, and even criticizing him while remaining steadfast on an independent vision of how to build a society where workers, farmers, students, women, the disabled, LGBTQ, everyone can live, work, study and govern with dignity and honor. In that regard, the candlelight protests were simply a prelude to the larger revolution we are building and recruiting to change Korean society.
Special thanks to all those that took the time to converse with me and informed my understanding of the current situation within a political, social, and historical context.
- The strong hold of the two mainstream parties create a dynamic where people are reluctant to cast “dead votes” for a progressive party that has little chance of winning. Polls revealed support ratings greater than ten percent for the progressives leading up to the vote. Many explain the disparity as the result of people voting for Moon in fear that the conservatives might win.
- Moon has stated that he will enforce UN sanctions while opening dialogue with North Korea.
- The various branches of government are allowed discretionary funds that can be spent simply for signing for it without a record of its usage or receipt.
- The anti-Moon faction left the Together Democratic party and formed the center-right People’s Party.