Candlelight Democracy

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Korea’s history of citizen-led protest dates back to the Japanese colonial period, when Koreans nationwide and abroad protested Japanese colonialism in the March 1st Independence Movement (1919). During the decades of rapid economic development from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, anti-authoritarian protests were held against rigged elections, poor working conditions, unjust military coups, government violence toward opposition, and more, with large scale protests happening in 1960, 1980, and 1987. The 1987 protests ultimately bought about direct elections which helped bring South Korea out of authoritarian rule.

However, beginning in the early 2000s, peaceful candlelight demonstrations emerged as a widespread and distinctly Korean form of civic protest. Candles were first used in protest in 1992, when online users protested the monetization of the online service Kotel. However, it was in November 2002 that candlelight became an iconic part of Korean civic demonstrations. Candlelight vigils were held in memory of two middle school girls who had been killed in an accident with a U.S. military tank. In 2004, candlelight was used again in peaceful protests against the impeachment of president Roh Moo-hyun, after the long-term gang rape of middle and high school girls in Miryang by tens of high school boys, and in protest against the National Security Law. In 2008, they were used in protest against the import of U.S. beef following incidents of Mad Cow Disease. These protests lasted over 100 days, growing from hundreds to hundreds of thousands protesting every weekend. The same year, candlelight demonstrations against the Four Rivers Project and public enterprise privatization were also held.

More recently, candlelight became a national symbol following the sinking of the MV Sewol on April 16, 2014. In commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the sinking, Koreans set the Guinness World Record for largest candlelight vigil with 4,475 people forming the shape of a ferry in Seoul City Plaza[1]. In October 2016, it was leaked that president Park Geun-hye – who in office during the Sewol disaster – had allowed a close, personal acquaintance to meddle in government affairs. Angered citizens began to protest for Park's resignation or impeachment. Peaceful candlelight demonstrations were held each weekend throughout the winter in Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul. Over 10 million citizens participated in protests nationwide. The protests pressured the National Assembly to impeach President Park in December 2016, and the impeachment was upheld by the Constitutional Court in March 2017.

The 2016-2017 protests cemented “candlelight demonstrations” as a new tradition of Korean civic protest and displayed the extent to which South Korean democracy had matured in the three decades following the 1987 June Democracy Movement.

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  1. Hankyoreh. 2015-4-18. Photo" Guiness record-setting candlelight vigil