Why you should care
Because demonstrations have overthrown South Korea’s first and last presidents.
Millions of women marched in the nation’s capital. Thousands gathered in cities around the country for spontaneous protests. An aroused citizenry flooded its legislators with emails and increased donations to the political party in opposition.
Sounds like the U.S. following the election of Donald J. Trump? But South Korea got there first — and much more effectively. Indeed, the movement to oust President Park Geun-hye, which culminates today as the country heads to the polls to elect her successor, achieved something else along the way. Observers say it marked a new kind of sustained social action — hyperorganized, laser-focused and buttressed by new networks. Some argue it could be a model across advanced industrial democracies, including, of course, the U.S. “Recent events [there] might be a blueprint for a progressive opposition in the U.S.,” says Doug McAdam, a sociology professor at Stanford University and a leading authority on social movements.
Of course, South Korean protesters were motivated by something anti-Trump forces lack thus far — proof of high crimes and misdemeanors. The protests in the East Asian country began in October when the National Assembly debated an impeachment vote triggered by corruption charges leveled against President Park Geun-hye. She was the nation’s first female leader and the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who ruled from 1961 to 1979. The demonstrations continued after legislators voted to impeach Park and lasted until the country’s Constitutional Court confirmed the assembly’s decision and removed the president from power in March.
In all, one in five South Koreans participated in the president-must-go rallies over the course of those turbulent months.
One key takeaway from the Korean example: persistence. Even though protests had been going on for months, anti-Park organizers were able to rally the faithful on the Saturday before the National Assembly’s December vote for what turned out to be the biggest demonstration in the country’s history — an estimated 2 million people. And, in the months that followed, as Park hunkered down in the executive mansion, known as the Blue House, to await the ruling from the high court, protesters held weekly candlelight vigils, keeping pressure on the president to resign. The high court’s decision triggered another mass demonstration; some activists in Seoul danced in the streets while others popped Champagne corks. In all, one in five South Koreans participated in the president-must-go rallies over the course of those turbulent months.
In the U.S., initial momentum was there for anti-Trump forces. The day after the election, “the protest in New York was super disorganized but very forceful, as all the power came from the crowd,” says Korean-American Joon-kee Park, 21, an operations coordinator who marched in front of Trump Tower. While the New York protests felt more organic to Park than the February rally he attended in Seoul, demonstrations in New York fizzled out within a week until the Women’s March rebooted activism on the day after the inauguration.
Since then, Trump’s travel ban has sparked a swarming of airports and surly constituents publicly grilling their members of Congress, and both a march demanding the release of Trump’s tax returns on Tax Day and the March for Science on Earth Day attracted thousands of supporters in several cities across the country, but there has been nothing like the doggedness of the South Korean protesters’ weekly candlelight vigils. “Mainstream media pulled wind out of the sails of the Women’s March by focusing on its lack of organization,” argues Kasper Smits, 27, an American musician who attended demonstrations that day in Santa Cruz, California, where about 10,000 people marched. He was there “not to topple Trump” but “in solidarity with my mother and sister.” Earlier in January, when he participated in a candlelight rally in Seoul, he was “stunned at how organized” it was and how much it felt like “a concert or a party.”
Another key takeaway from the Korean experience that some experts note: focus. South Korean protesters may have held differing opinions on Park’s policies and political positions, but they were unified on a straightforward proposition — Park was corrupt and therefore had to go. McAdam suggests that the most effective strategy for anti-Trump protesters is to unite and focus their efforts on Trump’s Russian connection, where he thinks the president is “most vulnerable.”
It is, in fact, starting to look like the issue that won’t go away anytime soon. The former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, wrote in an email to OZY in March that “it will take sustained pressure from society to force Congress to set up a bipartisan independent commission.” McFaul did not comment on whether he thinks Russia is Trump’s Achilles heel.
In South Korea, the Park scandal cut across party lines as members of the president’s ruling Saenuri Party defected in droves following weeks of protests. Opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who is now leading in the polls and favored to win today’s election, joined in the candlelight vigils and credited the demonstrations for pressuring legislators to investigate and impeach a powerful president who represented the country’s political and corporate establishment. In the U.S., even though Democrats and some Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham and John McCain have expressed concerns about Trump’s Russian ties, there’s been no sign of Republicans heading for the exits over the issue.
Another telling aspect of the South Korean phenomenon: strength in unity. Social activism brought together disparate organizations in a common cause, a coalition that may turn out to be a powerful tool in the future to keep wayward politicians and parties in line. To organize the candlelight marches, for example, representatives from an alliance of some 1,500 civic groups met weekly to coordinate speakers, performers and march routes. In the U.S., some 30 groups partnered for the Women’s March. McAdam explains that American progressives have not mobilized together en masse because they have been “badly splintered” since the late 1960s.
Before you hit the streets, however, here’s a word of caution from a leader of the Women’s March. Regarding the protests in South Korea, Janaye Ingram notes, “We all can learn from each other on a global space” and references Gandhi’s role in inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. “At the same time, we have to understand our democracy might look different than democracies from other places, and not all the same rules apply.”
This story has been updated since its original publication on March 14, 2017.