Two years ago, hundreds of thousands of people holding candles filled Gwanghwamun in support of impeaching then-President Park Geun-hye. The National Assembly voted to impeach Park on Dec. 9, 2016, and the Constitutional Court voted to remove her from office on March 10, 2017. Park was removed from office, and a special election was held on May 9, 2017, which resulted in a sweeping victory for Moon Jae-in. From the impeachment to the election, then-Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn served as acting president.
The series of events is well-known, but its bigger meaning often goes unmentioned. Democracy did not come easy to South Korea. Except for a year in the early 1960s, South Korea was governed by dictatorial presidents from 1948 to 1988. The depth of the authoritarian rule varied, but surveillance of the media and political opponents were constants. At its worse during the Yusin period from 1972 to 1979, political opponents were jailed, the press was censored, and free elections were not held. During the years of dictatorship, thousands died for the cause of bringing freedom and democracy to South Korea. To older Koreans who remember those dark years, the sight of people gathering peacefully in Gwanghwamun to call for the impeachment of a president would have been unthinkable.
How did this happen? Korean history, like most other places in the world, was dominated by monarchs and the narrow elite that supported them. Conflicts within the court, within the elite and between the court and the elite were common, which worked to limit the power of the monarch. Peasant rebellions were common, but never coalesced into a nationwide revolution that toppled the monarch.
As the Joseon Dynasty weakened in the face of imperialist threats to Korean sovereignty at the end of the 19th century, calls to adopt Western systems and technology emerged, but the focus was on reforming the monarchy and strengthening the state rather than overthrowing it to create a new democratic state.
Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945 was harsh, as authorities used the full power of the state to suppress dissent and turn Koreans into loyal Japanese subjects. The harshness of colonial rule stirred the March 1st Movement for independence in 1919, but colonial authorities successfully crushed the movement, forcing the independence movement to take refuge overseas, where it formed a provisional government. The rest of the Japanese colonial period was marked by strict social control.
The idea of rebelling against an unjust government has its roots in the dynastic heritage and resistance to Japanese colonial rule. Stirrings for reform at the end of the 19th century and resistance to colonial rule introduced Koreans to the idea of representative democracy with a government accountable to the people. These two traditions came together in South Korea after the Korean War and provided the impetus for the April Revolution that toppled Syngman Rhee in 1960, the Gwangju Democracy Movement in 1980, the June Democracy Movement in 1987, and the Candlelight Revolution of 2016-17.
The April Revolution and the Gwangju Democracy Movement ended with dictators re-asserting their power, but the June Democracy Movement and Candlelight Revolution were successful. The key difference in determining the success of the two most recent movements is social development. In 1960, South Korea was a poor primary rural nation with a small educated elite. By 1980, 15 years of economic growth had raised the standard of living and levels of education, but South Korea was still about 35 percent rural in 1980 and the middle class remained small.
Things changed by the middle of the 1980s: The economy had continued to growth, university attendance had risen rapidly and the urban middle class had begun to grow. The June Democracy Movement was successful because the urban middle class joined students who had been taking to the streets for several years already. As social development continued in the 1990s and 2000s, democracy planted deeper roots.
By 2016, South Korea had become an advanced industrial democracy with a high level of social development. The high level of social development means that political actors are accountable to an educated and involved public. Violence of the sort that has recently filled the streets of Paris would not attract public support and could have given police an excuse to crack down on the demonstrations.
As democracy appears to face challenges in some of its oldest habitats, the Candlelight Revolution stands out as an important reminder that leaders in a democracy are accountable to all the people.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.