Many were horrified when Park Geun-hye took office as South Korea’s president in 2013: How could the daughter of a dictator come to power in times of democracy? Her father, Park Chung-hee, had taken control of South Korea by military coup in 1961 and ruled with authoritarian measures until he was assassinated by his own chief of intelligence in 1979.
Besides martial law and ruthless suppression of political opposition, Park Chung-hee also brought rapid economic growth to a country still struggling to recover after the Korean War. Thus, many hoped his daughter, who at an early age had become First Lady under her father due to her mother’s premature death, could retool South Korea’s economy.
«The secondary school students were sacrificed for the ruthless political economy of a country where multimillionaires systematically evade justice.»
Instead she ended up at the centre of one of the biggest political and economic scandals in South Korean history and is currently serving a 24-year sentence in a Seoul Detention Centre for abuse of power, bribery, coercion and leaking of government secrets. Even though the scandals surrounding her presidency were unravelling already from the spring of 2014, it took another three years for the parliament to impeach Park Geun-hye and remove her from office. And it happened only because the citizens took to the streets in unprecedented numbers.
The final countdown
The new documentary Light a Candle, Write a History – Candlelight Revolution, which had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October, documents the mass protests that finally took down the president: 30,000 participated in the first so-called Candlelight Demonstration on October 29, 2016, and at the second demonstration ten times as many came. By the fourth Candlelight Demonstration almost two million people in Seoul alone went out into the freezing cold to demand that Park Geun-hye step down.
Flying above the crowds, the camera captures the breath-taking sight of millions of candles in the dark winter streets. In an impressive coordinated countdown everyone puts out their lights, and a moment later lights them again in a wave starting from the centre and continuing down the long straight main roads of Seoul.
The anger against the government had been mounting, particularly since the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol in April 2014, carrying 476 passengers from Incheon, Seoul to the island of Jeju. Most of the passengers were secondary school students on excursion and, though the ferry was close to the coast, only 172 passengers were rescued – not by the coast guard but by fishing boats and commercial vessels.
The parents of the victims were enraged by the lack of government response and the attempts to cover up why the rescue operations had been so poor. It was a scandal involving political corruption, including using bribery to hide the fact that the ferry owner had deliberately ignored safety procedures to save money.
The secondary school students were sacrificed for the ruthless political economy of a country where multimillionaires systematically evade justice. However, its citizens were no longer willing to accept this state of affairs.
Protests come together
Light a Candle, Write a History shows how the Sewol protests demanding justice and truth merged with the frustrated workers of SsangYong Motor – who for a decade had been fighting unjust dismissals and a lack of workers’ rights and protection – and with citizens from all walks of life who had put their trust in Park Geun-hye but felt betrayed by her style of governance.
During 2016 it was revealed that the president had helped her friend and mentor, the shaman and cult leader Choi Soon-sil, enrich herself. She had also let Choi read confidential government documents and influence state policies. It also became known that the president had spent her controversial seven-hour absence from public view after the Sewol ferry accident in a secret meeting with Choi Soon-sil.
During the period of mass protests in the centre of Seoul from the fall of 2016 to the spring of 2017, Park Geun-hye’s approval rates fell to five per cent, but even the opposition parties were reluctant to take action, which shows the scope of elite control over South Korea’s political landscape.
The president responded by calling the millions of protesters terrorists and likened them to ISIS. In the meantime she and her party were busy criminalising political opponents, preparing to declare martial law, and re-writing history textbooks to improve the image of Park Chung-hee’s regime.
Business as usual?
When representatives from the ruling Saenuri party warned the citizens that a storm might soon blow out their candles, the citizens boldly responded: A storm won’t blow out our candles, it will make the fire spread. The citizens then added to their demands the detainment of not just the president, but the corporate owners who helped her stay in power way beyond any form of democratic legitimacy.
In an historical victory, Park Geun-hye was finally removed from office on March 10, 2017, on the very same day that the sunken ferry Sewol was retrieved from the bottom of the ocean. Upon the announcement of the president’s impeachment the protesters who were gathered in the streets danced and shared hugs and tears of joy.
Light a Candle, Write a History makes it appear as if the mobilisations of citizens announced radical change, but the sad fact is that much has since returned to business as usual. The corporate owners largely kept their impunity and the families and friends of the drowned secondary school students are still waiting for the truth, maintaining a memorial camp in Seoul city centre to this day. The former SsangYong Motor workers and many others are also still struggling for justice in a society where economic growth comes at a high cost to the majority.
The documentary fails to explain exactly how – on an organisational level – it became possible to make such a large and varied crowd of citizens come together in the same mass protests, but shows clearly that the lighted candles mobilised people who usually do not claim a political voice. It remains to be seen what powers these historical events have unleashed.
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