If you really want to experience a country’s political culture, there’s nothing quite like joining a protest. Thankfully, Korea’s protests are generally pretty safe. Not to mention fun!
The first protest that I saw was in the summer of 2011, during the dying days of the Lee Myung-bak government. It was my first time touring Seoul, and I went down to Gwanghwamoon for the usual touristy stuff – selfies with King Sejong and a palace tour. But the ancient plaza in front of the palace also doubles as a protest venue whenever citizens have something to complain about. Not being very good at the language at that time, I had no idea what the subject of protest was.
The first thing most people remark on is that Korean protests are very orderly. You will see protesters sitting in neat lines, perhaps with umbrellas for the rain or sun. The riot police are organised in equally neat lines. You can see that many of these are boys fulfilling their two-year national service – so it’s unlikely that they will be beating up anyone. However, the police do deploy lines of buses to cordon off important areas and control the crowd. There have also been incidents of fatal use of water cannons.
My second brush with ‘Korean democracy’ was in the winter of 2016/2017, after the Park Geun-hye scandal exploded. Braving temperatures of minus 10, a million citizens turned out to demand the President’s resignation every weekend for two months or so. The body heat generated by protesters was so massive that I wasn’t cold even if I took off my jacket!
The Park protests kind of became a weekly carnival, with recognisable songs that the crowd could dance to, and enterprising citizens selling everything from hotteok (sizzling snacks) to electric candles. The candle of course was the symbol of the anti-Park camp, and an icon of peaceful protest.
Joining these protests often began by taking the subway to Gwanghwamoon around 6pm and getting out near the Lotteria, where the crowd is thinner and you can also take away a burger to eat. We would then proceed to mill around the Kyobo building, Starbucks and statue of King Sejong to check out the atmosphere of the main crowd. Following the flow of traffic, we might end up marching towards the main gates of the palace, imagining ourselves in the footsteps of robed scholars petitioning the King for a royal edict. Finally, the most enthusiastic protesters would make a side trip past the art museum to the gates of the Blue House, where they would chant their slogans in front of the President’s residence (I doubt she was actually home). Reporters with big cameras would try to interview us or get a 5-second B-roll. Meanwhile, tired protesters would pack the nearby coffeeshops to the rafters. The entire event might take three hours.
I’m honoured to have witnessed this important event in Korean history. Whoever said that Seoul is boring?
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