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Candle revolution: how candles led to Park’s impeachment

Dec. 9, 2016 - 16:22 By Ock Hyun-ju
The parliament on Friday voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye, bringing her presidency to the brink of collapse.

The impeachment was a victory for many of South Koreans who have taken to the streets for the past six weeks in massive street rallies to demand her resignation.

It was the candle-holding protesters who unwaveringly demanded Park’s immediate removal ever since the scandal broke in late October and pushed lawmakers to cast ballots to impeach her. 

The National Assembly in Seoul, a day prior to the impeachment. (Son Ji-hyoung/ The Korea Herald)

“Parliamentary impeachment of Park wouldn’t have happened if citizens didn’t light up their candles,” said former Rep. Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, referring to the large-scale candlelight vigils held nationwide every Saturday demanding Park’s resignation.

“South Koreans are writing a new history today, with the candles. The parliament’s impeachment of Park is the beginning of a great civil “candle” revolution that will lead our country into a better future.”

The first anti-Park candlelight vigil was relatively small, but grew with each passing week as more Koreans became enraged by the series of revelations implicating Park in the scandal and her refusal to step down.

The first protest was held on Oct. 29, a few days after local TV channel JTBC found a discarded tablet PC, supposedly owned and used by Choi, which contained files of Park’s photos, presidential speeches and policy drafts. 

Protestors hold placards reading "President Park Geun-hye, resign!" during an anti-Park rally. (Yonhap)

The president made an apology a day later, saying she sought advice from Choi, who had previously helped her through difficult times, on public speeches. She rejected other accusations, saying she knew nothing about Choi’s alleged influence-peddling and embezzlement of public funds.

As her apology fell short of clarifying suspicions, the first protest in central Seoul drew about 30,000 people. They voiced anger towards Park’s friend Choi Soon-sil who, despite holding no government post and having no policy background, manipulated power from behind the scenes.

At that time, the protestors, mostly unaffiliated citizens who came with their family and friends, demanded the truth from the president. Only a few called for her resignation.

The following week, Park reshuffled her Cabinet and presidential staff to diffuse public anger. But such actions were only seen as clinging to power amid the spiraling scandal.

A day before the second rally on Nov. 5, Park made a second apology, saying she would accept prosecutorial questioning and an independent counsel investigating her. But she insisted that all she did was for the sake of the country’s economy and people’s livelihoods.

At that time, the opposition bloc didn’t campaign for Park’s departure from office. Its stance was that a new, neutral Cabinet should be formed and Park should relinquish some of her presidential power to it.

The second protest on Nov. 5 saw a nearly ten-fold increase in participants. Some 200,000 flocked to Gwanghwamun Square, vehemently calling for Park’s resignation.

Startled by the massive outpouring of public fury, opposition parties leaned towards removing Park from office.

The third rally came on Nov. 12, attracting up to 1 million people in central Seoul. 

It was the biggest rally in decades since the country’s democratization in the late 1980s. It was also the first time that protestors were allowed to get as close as 200 meters to the presidential palace of Cheong Wa Dae.

Since the Nov. 12 rally, politicians from opposition parties have joined protesters on the streets, calling for Park’s ouster. The ruling Saenuri Party started to falter, with the pro-Park leadership and defiant rebels clashing over what to do with the embattled leader.

Despite the large-scale rally, Park was still seen fighting back resignation calls, appointing a new culture minister and ordering the prosecution to thoroughly investigate a lobbying scandal involving a real estate development project in the southern city of Busan.

Then came the fourth weekend rally on Nov. 19, which attracted 960,000 people at 60 locations across the nation.

Protestors were further angered by signs of President Park refusing to step down and a remark by Rep. Kim Jin-tae, one of the staunch loyalists of Park in the ruling Saenuri Party: “The candles are blown out when wind blows.”

A day after the rally, public prosecutors investigating the scandal named the president a suspect in the influence-peddling scandal and accomplice to Choi Soon-sil and her presidential aides on charges of extorting donations from local conglomerates.

Breaking her earlier promise, the president refused to respond to the face-to-face questioning by the prosecution through his lawyer, saying it is politically “biased.”

Days before protestors gathered again for the fifth anti-Park rally, all three opposition parties -- the Democratic Party of Korea, People’s Party and Justice Party -- declared a campaign to impeach Park.

Then the rally on Nov. 26 set a new record -- 1.9 million participants across the country. By this day, Park’s approval rating had slipped to an abysmal 4 percent, according to a Gallup Korea poll.

Stung by the undying public censure, pro-Park loyalists within the ruling Saenuri Party came up with a plan in which the president steps down in April, allowing the next presidential election to be held in June.

The emboldened opposition set Dec. 2 as the impeachment vote day. 

About 1.9 million people packed the Gwanghwamun area during the sixth weekend rally against President Park Geun-hye held on Dec. 3. (Yonhap)

In her third apology on Nov. 29, just days before the crucial vote on her fate, the president offered to give up her presidency, but only in accordance with a schedule and legal procedure that the rival parties agree on.

Park’s offer was a veiled jab at her foes and it did succeed to an extent in shaking the pro-impeachment coalition. The impeachment vote was delayed, as Saenuri lawmakers who had earlier supported the opposition-led motion changed their mind.

It was again the people who showed up in even bigger numbers to lash out at both Park for refusing to resign and the lawmakers for so far failing to remove her from office.

An estimated 2.32 million people poured onto the streets in the sixth rally on Dec. 3, making it the largest protest in the nation’s history.

The rally forced the grey-zone lawmakers within the ruling Saenuri Party to switch sides again and rejoin forces to oust Park.

The decision led to the passage of the impeachment motion on Friday, which many see as a triumph of people’s power.

“If the public had not taken to the streets in large numbers like this, the lawmakers would have not moved to pass the impeachment motion,” Lee Byoung-hoon, sociology professor from Chungang University, told The Korea Herald.

“It was South Korean people who forced lawmakers to end their political power game, listen to the public and join forces to remove President Park from office,” he said, adding it was an opportunity for South Korean democracy to mature.

“From now on, rallies should evolve into a platform for the public not only to vent anger, but to reveal problems and find the solutions in society,” he said.

By Ock Hyun-ju  (