The Price of Democracy

ké radar

Demonstrations calling for the ouster of then-president Park Geun-hye began in late October. Huge “candlelight rallies” continued almost every Saturday for the next 21 weeks, with fireworks, rock concerts on professionally built stages, banners and, of course, candles (both wax and LED). Portable toilets magically appeared; the streets were cleaned after each vigil. Many praised these events as some of the most orderly and peaceful political protests in South Korean history, and even as a triumph of democracy. 

But how much did they all cost to run, and who paid the bill? 

The main organizing force was the Emergency Action for Park’s Resignation (EAPR), a voluntary task force comprising of some 1,500 civic organizations. This self-funded coalition took charge of every Saturday vigil in Seoul, at an average cost of 70 million won per rally (nearly 63,000 US dollars). According to organizers, the rallies in total involved 16 million people protesting nationwide for 20 weeks, assisted by 800 volunteers, and raised 3.8 billion won (approximately 3.4 million US dollars) in donations. 

But as the campaign wore on and each weekend’s event grew bigger, the EAPR’s finances entered the red. By mid-March this year, its deficit reached 100 million won, prompting campaign official Park So-jin to make a plea for support on Facebook. His request quickly went viral. 

 

“The rallies, which began before impeachment, have left the EAPR bank account in the red. The deficit has exceeded 100 million won [nearly 90,000 US dollars]. … All I can do is ask for the citizens’ help, again.” (Source: Park’s Facebook)

In just three days, the post brought in 880 million won in donations: almost nine times the amount required.

A thank-you message from the EAPR: “An instant miracle took place. … Now we don’t have to worry about the survival of all those firms that made huge contributions by working our events at their own expense.” The EAPR promised to keep all its future transactions transparent. (Source: Emergency Action for Park’s Resignation)

Even after the thank-you note, money kept pouring in. In another three days, the donations had reached 1.2 billion won. Over twenty-two thousand supporters chipped in.

“Even people living abroad sent us money,” campaign official Park said on Jang Yoon-sun’s Podzzang, a podcast on OhMyTV. “What makes it meaningful is that this wasn’t support from one or two rich backers, but an accumulation of small sums from tens of thousands of people.”

It’s not quite clear how exactly the organizers will use the surplus of 1.1 billion won (nearly 990,000 US dollars). An Jin-geol, another manager at the EAPR, told Korea Exposé, “We’re thinking of using the leftover money to make donations to other social causes and publish a white paper on the candlelight vigils.”

 

Cover Image: A scene from a candlelight vigil in Seoul. (Source: Jun Michael Park)

Seohoi Stephanie Park wrote this radar report. 

Seohoi is a former intern at Korea Exposé and currently an undergrad at Yonsei Underwood International College, where she studies political science and international relations.