It was one of the most important patriotic holidays in South Korea and also a heated period of political discord. March 1, 2017 was 98 years to the day Korean activists read a document they called the Korean Declaration of Independence, in an affront to Japanese colonialism, and two days after impeached president Park Geun-hye’s legal representative read a statement expressing “regret” on her behalf to the Constitutional Court hearing the case.
Having just arrived in Korea one week ago, I was thrust into the excitement. I went looking for an event to commemorate the March 1 Movement, and I found democracy asserting itself in all its ugliness and glory. People waved their own country’s flag, held signs calling the press “liars,” and defaced images of their political enemies, calling them “traitor,” “rubbish,” and “you’re not going to breath”—all without interference from the military police. In 1919, the Japanese killed thousands in the ensuing two months after the Koreans asserted their independence.
It wasn’t until 1945, with the Allied victory of World War II, that Korea finally was afforded independence from Japan. Then it was divided in half and has remained as such to this day. But while North Korea remains a one-party communist state, consistently landing in the bottom four countries int he world in rankings of political freedom and human rights, South Korea became a democracy in 1988, ending decades of repressive governance, and regularly experiences passionate protests and peaceful exchanges of political power.
Since it was reported that Park’s advisor, Choi Soon-sil, was involved in shaking down chaebols (Korean conglomerates), Korean streets have rocked with protests. By November, one month after the scandal was reported, Park’s approval rating hit 5 percent, and her disapproval rating 90 percent. On December 9, the legislature voted 234-56 for impeachment. Now the Constitutional Court is reportedly close to reaching a verdict on whether the impeachment will stand.
Ididn’t go seeking out a pro-Park protest. I just happened to find it when I went to City Hall to see what was happening on March 1. Inside City Hall subway station, passengers exiting were carrying flags. The crowd pushing towards the exits made me feel like I was in China again. In the rush, I ended up in the midsts of masses waving flags to music and speeches and noticed the political connotations.
For someone who has 5 percent approval, the crowd seemed pretty large. (Voice of America cited reports of 200,000 people protesting at a pro-Park event in mid-February, and it may have been even larger on March 1. One of the anti-Park protests was pegged at 750,000.) Even amongst those aged 60 or older, the bulk of the pro-Park protesters, only 10 percent of seniors supported her in a December poll by Gallup Korea released just before she was impeached. For the age groups 19-29, 30-39, and 40-49, the percentage who supported her was 1 percent, 1 percent, and 2 percent, respectively.
One woman I talked to said, “We believe the president is honest, and she is innocent.” Only Choi was guilty of crimes, she said. A man said he wasn’t there to support Park but rather to oppose what he said was an “illegal” impeachment. He also railed against what he felt was a biased judiciary. Then there were the many people carrying signs attacking the media for “lying.” A group calling itself the Patriotic Alliance to Protect Liberal Democracy posted a banner decrying the “rebellious impeachment” of the president and called the pro-impeachment protesters “instigators” who were “violating constitutional law.”
Park’s lawyers are arguing that the impeachment was illegal or improper for procedural and other reasons. A special prosecutor has named Park herself as a suspect for bribery, and 17 people have been referred for trial. In addition to political advisors, a number of professors and officials at Ewha Womans University, which allegedly gave Choi’s daughter special treatment, have been arrested. The Constitutional Court is made up of eight judges, all of whom have been appointed by two conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park. (Ordinarily, it is nine judges, but one of the seats is empty because the judge’s term ended. Six judges must agree for the impeachment to be upheld.)
Behind the individual political disputes lays a bigger issue cutting to the heart of Korean political divides. The Korean flags being waved along with American flags, the prevalence of marine veteran hats and military berets on mens’ heads, and the banners printed with portraits of Park’s father, former president Park Chung-hee, says it all.
Korea’s cultural and generational divides echo today. Conservatives still accuse liberals of having communist sympathies or even ties. Perhaps to counter the narrative of the “patriots,” pro-impeachment protesters waved Korean flags on March 1 with yellow ribbons for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, the response to which Park’s critics claim Park was negligent in handling.
Conservatives say young liberals forget about the importance of America and the sacrifices of the soldiers who won South Korea’s freedom. But what of the continued reverence for Park Chung-hee?
The supporters of Park Chung-hee’s daughter can protest the Constitutional Court now, but only because of the sacrifices of so many activists who risked life and freedom to protest Syngman Rhee, Park and Chun Doo-hwan. As one sign at the rally said, “Freedom isn’t free.”
Rhee, the other man on the banner of great Korean leaders conservatives venerate, took power in 1945 after years in exile as an independence activist. He manipulated his way into the American’s favor and kept the Soviets from unifying Korea under communism. He led Korea through the Korean War, but he used coercion to keep himself and his allies in power by arresting opposition legislators and rigging elections. He had to flee back to the U.S. in 1960 after ordering a crackdown that resulted in the police killing protesters.
The Korean War may have ended six decades ago, but just this past month North Korea tested yet another nuclear missile and murdered its dictator’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-Nam. The U.S.-produced THAAD missile defense system Park’s government agreed to host is a flashpoint today, with much of the opposition opposing its deployment. They say it will unnecessarily exacerbate tensions with the North as well as with China. Chulhong Kim, a Korean Liberty Party (Park’s party) activist and theology professor at a Presbyterian college, accused the opposition of supporting a “pro-North Korean, anti-American, anti-free market, anti-human rights” agenda.
National security is one of the main reasons anybody still supports Park. 15 percent of respondents who approved of Park in the December survey cited “diplomacy / international relations” and 13 percent cited “North Korea / security policy,” the two leading reasons. The rhetoric against the left by many on the right can indeed be unhinged, but some on Korea’s far left really do harbor sympathetic feelings, and even more defend the rights of those who harbor sympathetic feelings.
Talking about North Korea, some activists and writers living here—and this speaks to a strain of the global left, as well—will say things like, “What degree of that [information about North Korea] is American propaganda? Because, as you know, America tries to demonize countries that it finds a danger to its self interest. … A lot of people don’t understand that it was the North Koreans who were trying to kick the Americans’ asses out of here. They were the ones trying to kick the new imperialists out of here. But you don’t read it that way.”
South Korea, more than almost any country in the world today, proves that democracy is more complex than can be condensed into one-sentence slogans and absolutist maxims. Voltaire didn’t live in post-war Germany or South Korea. Here, “anti-government” revolutionary activity is still illegal under the National Security Act, a law that some progressives want repealed. Here, the government occasionally restricts South Korean speech to the North by balloon drop, and the leading progressive party has tried to pass a law make balloon drops harder.
At end, if one wants to defend to the death anyone’s right to say anything, they have to defend that person’s right and ability to live in a free and open society. Citizens of South Vietnam didn’t have that right. Neither did those who died on the streets of Seoul and Gwangju in 1919, 1960, or 1980.
UPDATE: Park was removed from office on March 11 in a unanimous decision. I visited the victory celebration by the anti-Park protesters and shared photos.
”Impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye tells court of ‘regret’,” AFP/The Straits Times
”What now for Park’s impeachment trial?,” The Korea Herald
”Park impeachment ruling expected in mid-March,” Nikkei Asian Review
”South Korea Impeachment Drama Enters Final Act,” Brian Padden, VOA News
”South Korean Far-Right Rises Up to Defend Impeached President,” Brian Padden, VOA News
Protesters hold weekly rally against impeached Park, Yonhap News
”Is Constitutional Court stacked in Park’s favor?,” The Korea Herald
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.