[Viewpoint]Candlelight politics

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[Viewpoint]Candlelight politics

Korean society is witnessing the appearance of a new type of politics in the spring of 2008 ? the politics of candlelight vigils. Candles are not only lit up in front of Seoul City Hall, but also on the Internet, on cell phones, on television screens and, most of all, in the hearts of the people. I want to call this “candlelight politics.”

Some people may still give credence to the theory that there are puppeteers and instigators operating behind the scenes.

Others may simply consider the vigils an expression of dissatisfaction by those who oppose globalization.

But I recommend that everyone find some time and join in the candlelight vigils themselves.

Lively free expressions of opinion, street marches that go in unpredictable directions, bold criticisms of old-fashioned protest rallies that emphasize organizing people and maintaining a hierarchy of organizers, extraordinary scenes of citizens volunteering to be taken into police custody, the disappearance of offline and online boundaries and, above all, the justifiable anger of the people directed against a government that insists on going in the opposite direction that a majority of the people want: All these examples are breaking down the analog style of politics that considers people simply as objects to rule.

I think there are six rules for candlelight politics.

First is the politics of daily life. The reason behind the recent candlelight vigils is the government’s unskilled beef import negotiations with the United States. If the main issues of social movements in the past were macroscopic, such as democratization and labor-management relations, the recent movement focuses on microscopic problems related to food safety and our daily lives. Korean society is currently witnessing the emergence of a politics of daily life that stands up against the existing political system.

Second is the politics of participation. The people took to the streets because of a mistrust in representative politics. When the government and the governing party do not fulfill their duty, it is a natural phenomenon in the history of any democracy that there emerges a plaza politics. South Korea experienced a democratization movement in 1987, the no-vote campaign against unqualified candidates in 2000 and the anti-impeachment rallies in 2004.

Third is the politics of risk management. Candlelight vigils show a new type of politics that can be called risk management politics. The sphere of social conflict is moving from issues related to class to those issues that are essential to our lives, such as the environment, life and peace. Although it has not surfaced yet, if the government forces the cross-country canal plan, there is a high possibility that it will cause a conflict as strong as the one caused by U.S. beef imports.

Fourth is the politics of recognition. In the action of raising their candles high, we see the aspirations of those who want to assert their identities and to be recognized as members of society. Korean society has already experienced recognition politics during the candlelight vigil of November 2002, which demanded the recognition that Koreans and Americans are equal. This occurred after two American soldiers accidentally killed two middle school girls, and Koreans demanded the soldiers should be punished.

Fifth is digital politics. Another characteristic of candlelight vigils is that the divide between online and offline is disappearing. Debates take place in cyber space, entire protest rallies are aired live and cell phones shorten the distance between rally participants and observers. If the real politics of the Blue House and the National Assembly is unilateral analog politics, the politics of City Hall Plaza and Cheonggye Plaza multilateral digital politics.

Sixth is the politics of values. The politics of daily life stands up against representative politics, participatory politics stands up against authoritarian politics, risk politics stands up against class politics, and values politics pass through recognition politics, which stands up against authoritarian politics. Post-materialist values such as self-realization, safety and gender equality are becoming as important as economic life and materialist desires. Korean society is now witnessing the appearance of value politics, which stands up against desire politics.

Candlelight politics symbolize changes in our society and the evolution of democracy. The hidden codes of candlelight vigils cannot be understood properly from a conservative perspective that views people simply as objects to be ruled, or a progressive perspective that views social movements simply as a method of political mobilization.

Korean society is perhaps advancing from an age of rule to an age of governance and an age of true democratic values through candlelight vigils.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki
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