[Editorial] Much work remains to be done on first anniversary of candlelight revolution

Posted on : 2017-10-28 17:51 KST Modified on : 2017-10-28 17:51 KST
Citizens call for the resignation of President Park Geun-hye at the sixth candlelight demonstration in Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul on Dec. 3
Citizens call for the resignation of President Park Geun-hye at the sixth candlelight demonstration in Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul on Dec. 3

It was around this time last year that candles first started burning on Gwanghwamun Square. On Oct. 29, 2016, citizens began lighting candles there and on Seoul’s Cheonggye Plaza to demand that then-President Park Geun-hye step down. Soon the Gwanghwamun area in downtown Seoul was a sea of candles and all of South Korea was ringing out with chants of “the Republic of Korea is a democratic republic.” This weekend, events are scheduled on Oct. 28 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the candles.

The candlelight revolution was a monumental event in the history of South Korean democracy. The depth and breadth of democracy grew as the citizens proved for themselves the Constitution’s principle that the people are the sovereign of the state. They not only passed judgment on immoral state authorities who had betrayed the people, but also forged an opportunity to triumph over the Park Chung-hee ideology and right-wing conservatism that had been such oppressive presences in South Korea’s contemporary history.

Hesitant politicians were steered along one step at a time by the citizens’ collective wisdom. As a result, Park was impeached, and a new democratic administration was inaugurated with a snap election on May 9. These members of the public drew unprecedented praise from the international community for their resolute adherence to peaceful, nonviolent tactics.

What the candlelight demonstrations were demanding is summed up by their chants of “Is this a state?” They were not simply calling for the government to be replaced. They wanted an end to the corruption and improprieties on display in Chung Yoo-ra’s preferential admission to Ewha Woman’s University and a solution to the passing down of wealth and denial of opportunity symbolized by the “golden spoon” and “dirt spoon” metaphors. They wanted channels to be opened up for citizens to participate in deciding and enforcing policies. In short, they were calling to create a sensible society, a society where fair opportunities are guaranteed.

In retrospect, quite a bit was accomplished over the past year, but there is still a long way left to travel. There have been visible steps since the Moon Jae-in administration took office: the abolishment of state-issued history textbooks, the return of the “March for the Beloved” chorus at events commemorating the Gwangju Democratization Movement, increased conversion of irregular workers to regular status, and the introduction of post-nuclear power deliberative democracy. But there are also many important legal, institutional, and policy issues that remain to be addressed.

We need to root out the pockets of undemocratic and illegal practices where government manipulation thrived, and to allow democratic systems and practices to take root in all areas of governance. We need to work diligently toward prosecutorial and chaebol reforms, toward an end to government-business collusion and abuse of power, and toward normal broadcasting practices. We need to create more quality jobs and give hope to despairing young people and irregular workers. We need to hurry up and amend election law and the Constitution to create a political system to suit the “candlelight country.” We need to find a swift resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue for the sake of the peaceful and secure state and community guarded by those candles. Many of the candles’ demands remain unmet; the candlelight revolution has only just begun.

First and foremost, completing the candles’ mission will require the building of a resolute reform bloc around the Moon administration. Politics of collaboration and solidarity will need to be broadened for the sake of reform, the future, and an end to deep-rooted vices. After lying low for the past year, establishment forces have begun using reactionary parties and media to launch a counterattack. They are portraying the fixing of deep-rooted vices as “political retaliation,” all while playing dumb about their own vices over the past decade. At times like this, we need forceful and orderly reforms.

Clearing away these vices throughout our governance framework is a necessary step on the way to becoming a normal and advanced state. We cannot accord to let anything remain covered up – not the blacklist, not the National Intelligence Service’s internet posts, not the seven hours when Park Geun-hye was unaccounted for on the day of the Sewol ferry sinking, not the allegations around who actually owned DAS. Moving toward the future means uncovering the truth and assigning responsibility.

To be clear, eradicating these vices is not an end in itself, and our focus should be less on punishment than on bringing the truth to light and preventing these things from happening again. It’s also important to deal with that legacy in institutional terms – for example with reforms to the NIS.

Seeing the candlelight revolution through will also require the public’s engagement and attention on an everyday basis. The candlelight mission cannot be left entirely up to politicians to execute. Just as it was collective wisdom that drove the candles last year, so the public must see to it that politicians choose the right path. The candles that the citizens lifted must not be left to die out. We must forever keep the candles in our hearts. The awakened citizen is the last bulwark of democracy.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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