The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] ‘Korea sees new paradigm in democracy via nonviolent vigils’

Unification picked as next mission for democratization in peninsula

By Kim Da-sol

Published : April 14, 2017 - 15:53

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South Korea’s democratization has been fueled by citizens’ protests against corrupt politicians over the past few decades.

The mass uprising in 1960, called the April 19 Revolution, which thousands of students had marched from Korea University in eastern Seoul to the presidential office, ended the autocratic First Republic of South Korea ruled by the nation’s first president Syngman Rhee.

Although the hard-won democracy was short-lived, subsequent military regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan had to face a series of civil uprisings.

Street protests set the new normal. Students, civic groups, workers and even lawmakers took to the streets in fight against irregular government policies.

In the same vein, recent candlelit vigils that mobilized more than 15 million Koreans in response to the scandals of former president Park Geun-hye erupted in late October, was no isolated event, according to two American scholars.

UCLA Center for Korean Studies director John Duncan (center) / Gangbuk-gu Office UCLA Center for Korean Studies director John Duncan (center) / Gangbuk-gu Office

“Candlelight demonstrations, and the way they successfully brought about the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, gave me a great hope for Korea’s future,” John Duncan, a director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, told The Korea Herald.

Professor Duncan visited Seoul on Thursday to attend the International Conference on the April 19 Revolution.

The conference was hosted by Gangbuk-gu Office in Seoul, in an aim to commemorate the significance of the revolution, which terminated the autocratic rule of Syngman Rhee.

“Things in Korea (such as recent corruption scandals) have happened very dramatically and quickly that makes it so difficult for someone like me, a historian, to sit down and come up with a good analysis,” said Duncan, who has been teaching Korean history at the University of California since 1989.

Mixed with unprecedented levels of anger and solidarity among South Koreans, the result was explosive.

Citizens holding candles pushed the parliament to vote to impeach Park on Dec. 9, 2016 over a corruption scandal involving Park’s longtime friend Choi Soon-sil. It was upheld by the Constitutional Court on March 10, which many hailed as a victory for the people.

Meanwhile, Paul Chang, an assistant professor of Sociology at Harvard University, defined the recent impeachment a “triumph of democracy” in the interview.

Chang, who also attended the conference on Thursday as a main speaker, said that the incident was one of the exemplary cases in an impressive cohort of young democracies.

Harvard University sociology assistant professor Paul Chang / Gangbuk-gu Office Harvard University sociology assistant professor Paul Chang / Gangbuk-gu Office

"The combination of the size of protests and the peaceful nature of the gatherings was the most impressive.”

The large scale candlelight demonstrations changed people’s perception of what’s possible in Korean society, said Chang.

“Even less than a year ago, protests have been quite violent. It was so violent that the instinctive response from the police was to confront protest very severely or harshly. But I think this protest showed a different paradigm,” he said.

In the polarized society where conservatives and liberals are distinctively divided, recent demonstrations showed “some kind of coalition among different sectors of society or coming together,” according to Chang.

Duncan said that “for Koreans, what strengthens and advances democracy is citizen’s participation.”

Duncan and Chang shared the view that political parties should reflect the voices of voters in a responsible manner.

“In short-term, citizens can vote, meet your congressperson, protest within a rule of law, and participate through institutional mechanisms.

“But in the long-term, it is education. Educate your children so that society is not about money or competition, but about achieving a greater good. Though we easily forget, it is a lot easier to have a new generation of people who think about the good of a whole, as an individual, if not, how are you going to have any function of democracy?” Chang asked.

Duncan stressed that another mission for Korea’s democratization is unification.

“I believe that reunification is absolutely necessary for the nation’s long-term soundness and autonomy of the divided nations,” Duncan said.

Responsibility and role now lies in the new government that will take office in less than a month, he says.

“As far as I‘m concerned, that is why it is important that the new government is genuinely committed toward resolving issues between South and North Korea, moving in a positive and effective way toward reunification,” said Duncan.

By Kim Da-sol (