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Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
A future protester sees how it’s done.

South Korea’s protest culture gets results, but its roots are nothing to envy

By Tripti Lahiri

Beginning last October, South Koreans began gathering weekly to protest against president Park Geun-hye, after news reports that she had been unduly influenced by a close confidante. In December, days after a massive gathering in the capital’s Gwanghwamun Square, the South Korean parliament voted to impeach Park. Last Friday, a court upheld that vote.

Koreans, of course, reacted by demonstrating, mostly to celebrate their victory, but in some cases also to sympathize with Park.

Over the weekend, some Americans wondered whether they should be looking to South Korea for lessons on how to oppose US president Donald Trump.

South Korea, though, is a special case when it comes to protest, because protesting there isn’t special. Rather than an activity people do once in a while, before returning to normal routines, protests in South Korea, political scientists say, are part of everyday life. Indeed, many Koreans have found ways to participate in them around their jobs, studies, or other commitments.

“Leaders and the public alike are acutely aware of the power of taking their grievances to the street—and even in ordinary times, they do it so regularly that momentous gatherings can seem entirely banal for the people involved,” Foreign Policy noted last year at the height of the anti-Park gatherings.

The protests also are family events. People frequently bring children so as to pass on the tradition of being vigilant of their leaders. One parent told CNN at a November protest, “I brought my child so that she could witness democracy in action.” And the protesters don’t leave a mess behind.

Wellesley College politics professor Katharine Moon says these strategies were forged over decades—in often painful and dangerous circumstances. In the 1980s, for instance, Koreans faced down tear gas and police to protest military rule and torture. The country’s protest culture dates back even further with readings of a declaration of independence against Japanese rule in 1919. A protest in 1960 against a US-supported autocrat led to his exile. In 1987, when the ruling military leader tried to appoint his successor, protesters forced him to agree to elections.

Moon says that after authoritarian rule, the freedom to express dissent was channeled into protests over a wide range of causes, including press freedom, trade policies, farmers’ rights, and the US military presence.

“The protest movement actually became quite powerful,” said Moon, whose book Protesting America: Democracy and the U.S.-Korea Alliance examines what prompted the mobilization against US bases in the 1990s and 2000s. “People no longer feared being locked up, being tortured, or potentially sacrificing their lives.”

Those experiences shaped the protests of the last five months. As prosecutors investigated whether Park’s confidante had used her political connections to coerce donations from conglomerates—she is now on trial but has denied the charges against her—the protesters didn’t let up. They protested week after week, with a well-honed sense of performance.

Around Christmas, protesters dressed in Santa outfits and carried gift-wrapped boxes, chanting “Gifts to children and handcuffs to Park.” A New Year’s Eve protest gave way to a New Year’s celebration, with fireworks. In an outdoor installation that called to mind Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s backpack homage to the thousands of schoolchildren killed in an earthquake in China’s Sichuan province in 2008, protesters laid out life vests to represent the Korean students who died in a 2014 ferry disaster that turned public sentiment against Park.

And yet, Moon says this spectacle of constant street protest is more disquieting than exhilarating.

“I find worrisome this glorification of South Korea’s protests,” she says. “If governance structures were working properly then citizens normally would be channeling their concerns through institutional processes—reaching out to their elected leaders, going to the courts. Spilling out into the street is a sign of political dysfunction.”

The case against protest envy

There are some signs that other democratic processes are developing alongside protest tactics, such as a campaign to set up a website to help Koreans contact elected officials so they could urge them impeach Park. But for the most part, Koreans strongly distrust their leaders and institutions, which is why they rely so heavily on protest above all other forms of democratic action, Moon says. “Americans should not at all envy the fact that Koreans find resolution though these massive protests,” she says.

The fact that most Americans don’t or won’t engage in endless street protest is a sign of a still-healthy faith in institutions. If that faith should dissipate, though, there are some strategies they could adopt from Korea for a long-term movement. That includes injecting protests with the kind of efficiency and planning usually associated with work, incorporating division of labor and scheduled shifts so that’s it easier for working people to be part of a protest movement. For example, a person or group might come to a designated protest spot for an hour and then be replaced by another, in what Moon calls a “relay” protest.

Protests in America may never be successful in convincing a Republican-controlled Congress to initiate impeachment proceedings. But they can have other salutary effects. On the Just Security blog, New York University law professor Roderick M. Hills says that public protests could be vital for empowering lower judges and bureaucrats to take a stand against potentially unconstitutional executive orders.

“By throwing millions of demonstrators on the street, organizers of mass protests might be stiffening the spines of those unelected officials who may otherwise fear the pressure and vengeance of elected incumbents,” Mills wrote in the wake of court rulings that halted an executive order barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.

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