It was June 13, 2002. Korea was in the grip of "World Cup fever." However, as the "Taeguk Warriors" were making their legendary run to the semi-finals, a tragic event took place. Two young girls walking alongside a narrow village road north of Seoul were run over by a U.S. armored vehicle. Shim Mi-seon and Shin Hyo-soon, both 14, were on their way to a friend`s birthday party when their lives were cut short.
At the time, the incident did not get an immense amount of mainstream media attention. The Red Devils were making history at the World Cup and it was perhaps the most exciting sporting accomplishment ever for this nation.
Gwanghwamun was often teeming with more than a million people that summer, but they were hardly somber protestors. They were Korea`s soccer fans, caught up in street celebrations whenever the national team was in action. Not surprisingly, the World Cup overshadowed the deaths.
But "World Cup fever" soon died down and the country settled back into reality. Renewed attention was focused on the dead schoolgirls, especially during the two soldiers` military trial.
The U.S. military court acquitted the two defendants, Sgts. Fernando Nino and Mark Walker, on charges of negligent homicide in November 2002.
Many criticized this decision and demanded that Korea be given jurisdiction over the case - something that was impossible under the Status of Forces Agreement. Calls to revise SOFA became more pronounced.
However, the spark that led to the mass candlelight vigils at the time did not come from mainstream press criticism.
Ronda Hauben examined those events in a 2007 paper published by Columbia University entitled "Online Grassroots Journalism and Participatory Democracy in South Korea." For Hauben, an expert on the "netizen phenomenon," the 2002 uproar had its roots online. In fact, she traced it back to a posting by an angered internet user who wasknown online as AngMA.
He wrote, "Let`s walk in Gwanghwamun holding a lighted candle. Let`s commemorate the lives of Mi-seon and Hyo-soon, who were forgotten in the joy of June. Will the police prevent us? Even if they forbid it, I will walk in Gwanghwamun, even if the police attack me."
He added, "Even if only one person comes, it`s ok. I will be happy to say hello. I will talk about the future of Korea in which Mi-seon and Hyo-soon can take a comfortable rest. I`ll go on this week, next week, the following week. Let`s fill Gwanghwamun with our candlelight. Let`s put out American violence with our peace."
According to Hauben, AngMA posted this message on several websites and it struck a nerve. The results: 15,000 people showed up at the first candlelight vigil on Nov. 30, 2002. This ballooned to more than 100,000 by Dec. 14 in front of Gwanghwamun, where, just months earlier, millions of Koreans were jumping up and down in celebration of the nation`s World Cup success.
What ensued had an immense impact on Korean politics. 2002 was a presidential election year and the heavily favored Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party was expected to beat the relatively unknown Roh Moo-hyun of the Millennium Democratic Party.
Mainstream media polling showed Lee ahead of Roh up to the day of voting. But groups like Nosamo, roughly translated to "People who love Roh," and the upstart news website Ohmynews, were instrumental in mobilizing people online.
There was indeed an overlap between the candle-bearing people angered over the schoolgirls` deaths and those who subsequently came out to vote. Many of those citizens ended up supporting Roh, who was seen as a sympathetic outsider and maverick, even within his own political party.
There are many theories as to what led to Roh`s successful bid for the presidency. But many analysts, including Hauben, point to the candlelight vigils of 2002 as a seminal moment in the sprouting of netizen power, giving power to people who had not had a voice in the nation`s political debate.
It is said that Roh Moo-hyun swept into the presidency on the coattails of a sweeping anti-American sentiment blowing across Korea. That certainly may have been the case, but according to Hauben, Roh was just the conduit of a wider megatrend occurring in Korean society: "the importance of the 2002 election was that it was not based on support for Roh personally, but was a manifestation of the desire of young netizens for political reform."
Candlelight vigils today
Fast forward six years, and it appears that a similar phenomenon is occurring today. On April 18, Korea and the United States agreed to renew shipments of U.S. beef, which had been banned since 2003 due to a case of mad cow disease. It was the eve of newly elected President Lee Myung-bak`s summit with U.S. President George W. Bush and the deal was meant to facilitate passage of the KORUS FTA.
Again, the mainstream media did not foresee the magnitude of discontent, which was sparked by online reactions to a TV documentary alleging the dangers of tainted U.S. beef (in 2002, a TV documentary also highlighted the schoolgirls` deaths and the subsequent trial). And, once again, the internet became the medium for a swelling of mass public anger at the authorities for pushing an edict that went against majority opinion.
Thousands have reemerged with relit candles in central Seoul. The vigils today are symbolically encapsulated by the now ubiquitous image of "candlelight girl," a cartoon drawing of a young girl holding aloft a lit candle. It is a powerful and poignant image, especially considering the fact that the original 2002 vigils were for the two young girls, Mi-seon and Hyo-soon.
Also poignant is that students roughly the same age as Mi-seon and Hyo-soon sparked the current uproar. Those students, rightly or wrongly, fear that mad-cow tainted beef is being forced down their throats by an uncaring government. Akin to 2002, the students` outcries have snowballed into a nationwide phenomenon encompassing diverse groups banding together to collectively demand reparations for perceived injustices. The political establishment has again been shaken to its core.
2002 and 2008 contrasted
Although it may seem like "a Korean thing" based on the current media frenzy, candlelight vigils are not a Korean invention. They are a traditional form of assembly. Wikipedia offers this definition:
"A candlelight vigil is an outdoor assembly of people carrying candles, held after sunset. Such events are typically held either to protest at the suffering of some marginalized group of people, or in memory of lives lost to some disease, disaster, massacre or other tragedy."
Some notable candlelight vigils include people in various countries lighting candles for the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, or those held by divided Cold War-era Germans prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
If candlelight vigils themselves are nothing new, then Koreans have certainly added their own flavor to the events, both in 2002 and today. That being said, the candlelight vigils for the schoolgirls and today`s beef uproar are not facsimiles of each other. Some subtle and not-so-subtle differences are apparent.
For example, in 2002, the deaths of Mi-seon and Hyo-soon triggered an outpouring of anger that many observers say was driven by anti-Americanism. There was a general sentiment in the country that the SOFA agreement was unfair and that America was doing more harm than good for Korea.
Today`s candlelight vigils are not as overtly anti-American, but they are definitely anti-Lee Myung-bak.
Yes, the issue that sparked the outcry was U.S. beef. And yes, there are some radical protesters who harbor anti-American sentiments. Anti-American sentiment may grow, depending on how the situation unfolds, but it does not reflect of the vast majority of protesters so far.
An interesting irony in the beef outrage is apparent through recent polling that shows the majority of the protesters still support the KORUS FTA and the benefits it may bring. Koreans on the streets may arguably be confused or conflicted, but to say that everyone bearing a lit candle is anti-American would be inaccurate.
However, if one listens to the chants of the protesters and the signs posted all over Seoul, it is apparent that the overriding anger of the populace has been squarely pointed at Lee, not at the United States.
At the outset of his term, his cabinet and secretarial appointments were a disaster. Now derisively nicknamed collectively after famous actresses "Kang Bu-ja" (pun using "Gangnam" and "bu-ja", which means "wealthy" in Korean) or "Ko So-young" (pun referring to Lee cronies from Korea University, Somang Presbyterian Church or Yongnam Province), they presented an image of an elitist, "good old boy" network of people running the country.
The then-popular Lee vigorously set about with his agenda, pushing through policies that were not unanimously supported. Lee once told Bush that he was not the president, but the "CEO" of Korea. He was certain that disagreements over his plans could be overcome through his successful "bulldozing." After all, he had done so at Hyundai Engineering and Construction and as Seoul mayor, specifically with the Cheonggyecheon project.
Therefore, the anger has more to do with Lee`s governing style than just simply the debate over whether American mad-cow was going to afflict the nation. The public resented the sense that Lee was the "CEO" and Koreans were merely employees expected to follow his orders. Somewhere along the way, his pledge to be a "servant to the people" got lost, and approval ratings below 20 percent reflect his extreme unpopularity.
The question then arises - if Lee is so disliked now, how was he elected so overwhelmingly in the first place, and where were all these "anti-Lee" people prior to last year`s presidential election?
A possible answer has again been provided by Ronda Hauben. In a recent analysis published in Ohmynews entitled "Korean Government Mishandled Beef Deal," she says that the netizens so crucial to Roh Moo-hyun`s victory in 2002 were largely muzzled due to stricter online campaigning laws in 2007.
"Over 65,000 online comments by netizens relating to the election were removed from the internet and over 1000 netizens received summons to report to the police," writes Hauben.
As a result, the same people who profoundly influenced the 2002 presidential elections in the aftermath of the schoolgirls` deaths were largely relegated to the sidelines. Voter turnout for the 2007 presidential election was drastically lower than in 2002. The lack of netizen mobilization, coupled with the public thirst for an economic savior, allowed Lee to take the 2007 election in a landslide.
For Hauben, these stifled online voices have now come out after the elections, in angered reaction to Lee`s performance through his first 100 days.
She states, "After the election, however, when it again became possible to discuss political issues, netizens in Korea took up to actively discuss the nature of democracy and the importance of having government officials who are the servants, not the masters of the citizens."
And, as demonstrated by today`s mass candlelight vigils, the response has been overwhelming.
When examining the past events of the candlelight vigils circa 2002, another looming difference from today`s uproar is apparent.
In 2002, there was a resolution to the protests. Roh Moo-hyun sweeping to the presidency could be considered a victorious accomplishment for those who felt aggrieved.
But, for the drama unfolding through the candlelight vigils of today, there is no apparent denouement.
Presidential and parliamentary elections are over and done with. For the next few years, people will be unable to punish their leaders at the ballot box, so they take to the streets.
President Lee has tried everything, to no avail. The en masse resignation of his secretariat and cabinet is unprecedented in Korean history, but it has been jeered by his opponents as a "political stunt." Measures to ensure that 30-month-old U.S. beef will not enter the country are not placating the citizenry. Unpopular plans like the cross-country canal project and privatization of state firms have been shelved indefinitely, but, still, the people protest.
The fear is that the current vigils, which have so far taken on a somewhat festive atmosphere, may evolve into a socially precarious situation.
Ideological clashes are brewing as the protesters, having a progressive leaning, witness counter-protests by conservative groups who are saying "enough is enough."
The rhetoric has grown heated. There are calls for Lee`s resignation, his impeachment, or, in the most severe cases, a desire to forcibly remove him from office. The sporadic violence that has occurred took place when some of the protesters attempted to march all the way to Cheong Wa Dae.
Need for reflection
Ironically, a voice of reason has come from the central political figure of the 2002 vigils: former President Roh Moo-hyun.
Speaking to his Nosamo supporters last week, Roh said that the march to Cheong Wa Dae was a meaningless act and that, "Even if the beef deal was wrong, it is still wrong to push for the removal of the (Lee) administration. It`s unconstitutional and undemocratic."
As someone who suffered through the Cheong Wa Dae hot seat for five years, Roh can surely empathize with Lee`s dilemma, though he probably feels it was largely self-inflicted.
In fact, the former president could possibly take the lead in fostering calm as he, unlike the current president, still has some clout with the netizens who have sparked today`s unrest.
The fact that candlelight vigils remained dormant for the duration of Roh`s five-year presidency is a testament to that. There were misgivings over his "pragmatic" decisions such as sending troops to Iraq or signing the KORUS FTA, but his somewhat disgruntled internet supporters bit their tongues, for the most part, and kept their candle wicks unlit.
The current president has no such luxury. Barely more than 100 days into his presidency, he still must endure about 1,700 more days of this maelstrom. It will take a very dramatic turn of events to salvage the rest of his term.
"I`m determined to make a fresh start. Let`s pursue aggressive challenges in these difficult times," Lee said recently, noting that he, too, took part in democracy protests as a youth. Heeding his peoples` demands, and pursuing a complete overhaul of his staff and style will be fundamental to improving his fortunes.
As the drama continues to unfold over candlelight vigils today, the nation can gain much perspective from the vigils of 2002. On the sixth anniversary of Shim Mi-seon and Shin Hyo-soon`s tragic deaths, the two schoolgirls have ended up becoming an infinitely bigger influence on this country than anyone could have ever imagined.
By Henry Shinn