Candlelight rally grows in the cold, calling for chaebol reform

Posted on : 2017-01-23 16:50 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
More demonstrators driven to participate after court rejects arrest warrant for Samsung’s Lee Jae-yong
 Jan. 21. (by Heo Seung
Jan. 21. (by Heo Seung

The 13th weekly candlelight demonstrations in central Seoul on Jan. 21 blazed with calls for chaebol reform.

The day before the event, its organizers with the group Emergency Citizen Action for the Resignation of the Park Geun-hye Administration had been worried enough about falling participant numbers to issue an “appeal to see the candlelight revolution through.” But despite heavy snow and subzero temperatures, the organizers estimated around 320,000 attendees, far more than the estimated 130,000 who showed up the weekend before. The increase appeared to reflect a sense of concern among citizens after a court ruled on Jan. 19 to reject an arrest warrant request for Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong. Many participants stressed the need not just for a new administration, but also fundamental societal reforms - particularly to South Korea’s chaebol.

During the evening hours, a mock arrest was performed for Lee in front of Samsung Tower in Seoul‘s Jonggak area. A performer wearing a mask of Lee’s face appeared in handcuffs walking out from in front of the tower and heading into a “prison” at Bosingak Junction, while citizens thronged to cheer the performance on as if it were Lee’s actual arrest. The crowd was large enough that the performance was briefly unable to even reach his “cell.”

A mock arrest performance of Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong during the 13th weekly candlelight demonstration
A mock arrest performance of Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong during the 13th weekly candlelight demonstration

The warrant refusal appeared to be stirring up energy on the public squares, which had died down somewhat after the National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye.

“The biggest problem is the chaebol,” said Jeon Bo-heun, a 53-year-old attendee who came with family members.

“They enjoy too much special treatment. People are coming to the squares because they can really sense the inequality and unfairness,” Jeon said.

“Fundamentally, nothing has changed. By impeaching President Park, all we’ve done is switch out who’s in power,” Jeon continued. “A change in administrations doesn’t mean anything unless the chaebol issue is solved. The same thing will just happen again.”

Kim Chang-ho, 48, was also attending with family members.

“We’d come periodically since President Park’s impeachment, but after seeing Lee Jae-yong’s arrest warrant rejected, we thought, ‘This won’t do,’” Kim explained.

“The public is already demanding more than just Park Geun-hye’s resignation. We need to take this opportunity to change a misguided society,” he added. “That’s not something we’re going to fix by running the President out.”

Yu Ji-yeon, 39, was attending with her two daughters.

“An arrest warrant is something for courts to decide, so I did try to understand. But I couldn’t at all,” Yu said. “I couldn’t see it any other way but as him not being arrested because he’s the head of Samsung.”

“I feel bad for the special prosecutor. I came because I wanted to show my support,” she added.

“I‘m hoping this occasion will offer a template for rooting out government-business collusion, but my fear is that it’s going to end up following the same script.”

Hwang Yun-gyu, a 43-year-old resident of Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, found a room in a nearby hotel for his family to stay in while attending the demonstration.

“Some of the things I hear in the plazas I agree with, others I don’t. The part I agree with most is about busting government-business collusion and reforming the chaebol,” Hwang said.

“We’re a generation that has been worn down by inequality and unfairness. I don’t want to leave that kind of world for our children,” he added.

Kim Na-yeong, 24, was attending with a friend.

“It’s my first time here. I came here feeling like I‘d been building up a kind of debt in my mind,” Kim said.

“The rejection of an arrest warrant for Lee Jae-yong was just absurd. Would that have been possible if he’s been just an ordinary person?” she asked. “I can’t trust the administration or the judges.”

Ju Ik-seop, 51, was also attending with a friend.

“Even after the President was impeached, Lee Jae-yong’s arrest warrant was denied. The idea that Samsung was being put ahead of the country made me so angry,” Ju said.

“The judiciary is hiding its double standard behind obscure legal principles,” he concluded.

Marches have also been changing course. The march that began at 7:30 that evening was split into three directions: the Cheongwoon neighborhood where the Blue House is located, the Anguk Subway Station area where the Constitutional Court is, and central Seoul where the chaebol have their offices. Many of the marchers headed toward the SK offices in Jongno, Samsung Tower in Jonggak, and the Lotte Hotel in Myeong-dong, where they demanded the arrest and punishment of chaebol chairmen

Plazas also echoed with calls for chaebol reform elsewhere in South Korea. No sooner had a demonstration begun at Jeju City Hall than the area rang out with shouts of “The chaebol are accomplices, arrest Lee Jae-yong.” A large screen showed footage of Lee walking out of Seoul Detention Center after his arrest warrant was denied. Participants at a candlelight demonstration on Gwangju’s Geumnam Road marched toward Gwangju District Court dragging an installation showing Lee behind bars to express their criticism of the courts.

Meanwhile, the National Rally Campaign Headquarters to Overturn Park Geun-hye’s Impeachment, a right-wing group, expressed its “welcoming” of the warrant rejection at a counterdemonstration the same afternoon in front of Daehan Gate at Seoul’s Deoksu Palace.

The rally, which was attended by 1.25 million people by the organizers’ estimates, featured an appearance by former Prime Minister nominee Moon Chang-geuk, who said he “applaud[ed] Judge Cho Ui-yeon for rejecting the arrest warrant [for Lee Jae-yong].”

“I believe the Constitutional Court justices will uphold the authority of the judiciary by ruling according to the law and real evidence rather than manufactured evidence,” Moon declared to loud applause.

Saenuri Party lawmaker Kim Jin-tae said former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun and former President Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon were “arrested out of fear after leftists revealed personal information about Cho Ui-yeon.”

“They were so anxious to just up and arrest a global business [vice chairman]. It’s hilarious to hear them say justice is more important than the economy,” Kim added.

By Park Su-ji and Heo Seung, staff reporters, Huh Ho-joon and Jung Dae-ha, Jeju and Gwangju correspondents

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