Almost every Saturday for the last twenty weeks or so, my friends and I took a stroll down to Gwanghwamun Plaza in downtown Seoul to join the protesters. We were young, awkward, and clueless. It didn’t take us long to realize that it was the first time, too, for a lot of the others—parents with babies in strollers, kids in school uniforms, students in university varsity jackets—all of them cheerful and most holding candles. It was oddly comforting.
In case you have been out of touch, I’m talking about the incredible protests against president Park Geun-hye — now former president Park Geun-hye. Accused of bribery, extortion and abuse of power, among other crimes, Park is the first president in South Korea’s history to be removed from power by the Constitutional Court.
It’s funny how it took an extraordinary moment to bring university students like me out for political engagement. In my parents’ generation, being a college undergrad was often associated with protesting against injustice, marching through the streets. Now, I feel a sense of lethargy has come to afflict South Korean students. Young people come and go, take classes, and hope to work their way up to become cogs in the capitalist machine. They learn about history and politics only through books. I heard about martyrs of great social movements that came before us. But all that sounded distant and far-fetched, until now.
It’s not to say that we have been idle; the younger generation just has different priorities in mind—be they families, friends, dating or indulging in petty consumerism. I also used to be one of those who took refuge in these many diversions—writing music for my band, skipping classes, drinking until 4 a.m, puking and then heading home on the night bus.
Then there is this fear that still lingers on university campuses even after the end of military dictatorships and transition to democracy. There isn’t any police censorship like back in the 70s and 80s, but people retain an instinct to hold themselves back. I see this even among university students. The trauma of anti-communist campaigns of the past endures. Simultaneously, people don’t want to be branded as Ilbe members, especially at my school— Yonsei University—which generates more traffic for the far-right online community than any other university in South Korea does, according to rumors. College students would rather keep their mouths shut about politics to avoid being stigmatized as either a commie or a fascist. Self-censorship has become the norm.
Instead, we continue on with our lives, engaging only in small talk. Even at Yonsei, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, we throw daily tantrums about being born with “dirt spoons” or “bronze spoons” in our mouths—meaning we are disadvantaged by our inferior birth—and are dismayed at the prospect of being exploited by companies as only a source of labor. But we actually don’t pay much attention to the politics closest to our lives: for example, the constant strikes by workers within the university.
Only in a space exclusively reserved for politics would we discuss it: student councils. Leaders and members of student councils spark up the debate discussing corporatism, activism, LGBT rights, people power, feminism, and other topics. I, too, stumbled across this group upon entering my third year at university, thinking we could bring about change. We went around writing posters, making statements, holding charity fundraisers — but for the most part, it didn’t work out. Once, we went out to protest against the school administration when the president arbitrarily decided to build a branch campus in Songdo, renovate the school and sign business contracts—all without notice, in a story not dissimilar from what’s happening at Seoul National University—but nothing really stopped the school from executing its will.
I became dispirited, unable to motivate myself or anyone else to care.
Then came the protests at Ewha Womans University last year, followed by the “candlelight vigils” in Gwanghwamun. For most of us it was probably the first time to engage in political action. Ewha is really close to my school, and in admiration, my friend and I sneaked into one of the demonstrations last November. The students were asking the university to take responsibility for the questionable admission of Chung Yoo-ra, daughter of Choi Soon-sil, who in turn was President Park’s best friend. We meekly stood behind the lines, carefully observing what we were supposed to be doing in the midst of these seemingly well-coordinated student protesters.
“What can we do?” My friend asked a girl standing in front of her. She turned around and gave us a smile, looking surprisingly innocent and young, “I don’t know, it’s my first time too. But thanks for coming and giving support.”
In Gwanghwamun, too, we saw that we were among others who seemed ordinary, just cheering, chanting and blurting out whatever we thought went wrong in this country, whatever injustice we saw in the series of scandals we had witnessed. The anguish, the disappointment, the rage—we were free to let them all out. We made our own slogans, our own signs, our own flags, and our own songs; we made our own rules. No one dictated how to and to what degree one could, should politicize oneself. All we had to do was to be there, feel the world and tell it what we had to say. So this is how it feels to be a part of society and get our voices heard, I thought.
Empowerment, a lot of people say. I guess young people have been led to associate social engagement with something brutal, something extreme, something that has nothing to do with us. But in the streets we witnessed that it was no longer the prerogative of the higher people—the ‘elite’—to bring change to society. The Saturday nights since last fall, when the Choi Soon-sil scandal first broke, taught us that it had always been, and will always be in our power to oust a corrupt president, to exercise freedom of speech and to take back our country.
We may be in a moment of unprecedented harmony and unity in the history of South Korea, but this for sure will not last forever. A disturbing fact remains that politics will always be a power struggle; we may soon even have to face the crude reality of seeing the old elites return to quibble over who’s left and who’s right, who’s right and who’s wrong. But this year we learned the lesson that above all, politics can also be just about having fun. Being connected. Sharing what you think is right. Because, as corny as it may sound, this society has room for every voice and voices matter.
I always wondered what it would feel like to live through a moment of historic significance; reminiscing about democratization and freedom fighters at a dinner table seemed like a right exclusively reserved for elders. And yet here we are, witnessing another watershed moment with our own eyes, for the first time in our lives. Park’s impeachment will endure as a memory of victory for our generation, not unlike how the transition to democracy thirty years ago is remembered by the generation that lived through it. Our future will take on a different course now that we have learned what we can do. Memories of the candlelight vigils will burn brightly in the minds of each and every one of us for a long time to come.
This essay was originally published on Mar. 15, 2017.
Cover image: a scene from the “candlelight protests” of late 2016 (Credit: Jirangmoon via Wikipedia)