[Viewpoint]The good and bad of candlelight
I went to several of the candlelight vigils. One day, I watched the protesters all night at Gwanghwamun. The government might find it disappointing, but there was no mastermind behind the scenes pulling strings. The protesters were not told to stage a rally. They rushed into the streets of their own angry accord.
It seems meaningless to determine whether the television program that started the panic over mad cow disease was exaggerated or not. Mad cow disease was only a spark. The root of the crisis is disappointment in the Lee Myung-bak administration.
Those in the streets sometimes staged violent protests, but for the most part, the rallies reminded me of festivals. Traffic was blocked in Taepyeongno, downtown Seoul, and people talked, drank and danced.
A man danced to the beat of a drum, and I had fun watching his performance. It was not until I heard occasional shouts calling for Lee Myung-bak to step down and for the three major newspapers to shut their doors that I remembered I was attending a protest rally.
It was easy to find groups of youngsters here and there, drinking beer and exchanging opinions. At one corner, an open podium was prepared to give anyone, from a high school student to a public corporation employee, the chance to criticize government policy.
I felt this was a combination of festival and protest at its best. Aside from the fact that protesters occupied the roads, got violent as the night wore on and did not allow opposing views in the discussion, the rallies seemed fine to me. After all, roads are blocked every time there is a carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
Some young parents took their children to the candlelight vigils, and their actions created a lot of controversy. However, if these parents thought the rally could become really violent, they would not bring their kids. The rallies sometimes turned violent, but most clashes with police happened when protesters attempted to march to the Blue House at daybreak. Some argue, “The parents were so furious at the government that they had to bring their children to the rally.” Others say, “It is outrageous to take children to such a place.” However, both arguments are only based on partial truths.
The progressive camp poured all kinds of praise on the candlelight vigils. One of the grandest compliments was calling them a great example of “direct democracy.”
We are witnessing the emergence of a new form of democracy in which people freely express their opinions. However, there is a flip side to this that we should know about. Consider the following statement:
“An unidentified group of people calls our company almost every day, pressuring us not to advertise in the three major newspapers ? The Chosun, JoongAng and DongA ilbos ? but in other progressive papers. I understand their demands for the right to health related to the beef controversy, but I don’t know why they are threatening unrelated companies. Advertising is an important part of running a business.”
This is one of the complaints received by a company that advertises with the JoongAng Ilbo. Pressuring advertisers is only the tip of the iceberg. As I listened to people working in the pharmaceutical, baking, shoe, apparel, food and financial industries, I wonder whether we are really living in 21st century Korea.
“The phone calls start with curses. Then, they threaten us saying they will not forgive our advertising in the Chosun, JoongAng and DongA. They demand that we advertise in certain other newspapers, instead. We, as a company, are very sensitive to even a single complaint from a consumer. I know they are calling systematically, but receiving dozens of phone calls is very scary. I am amazed how candlelight vigils are being exploited this way.”
The “candlelight democracy” ignited by opposition to U.S. beef imports shows signs of developing into another stage. The candlelight protesters started a series of rallies in front of state-run KBS on June 11. The purpose is to hinder the government’s attempt to control the broadcaster. KBS CEO Jung Yun-joo, who has been pressured to resign, has gained a source of strong support.
Working for public corporations is the most coveted career in Korea, and these corporations are also going all out. They used to keep a low profile because of criticisms that they have slack management and waste tax money. Now, the public corporations openly advertise in newspapers to refute criticisms and appeal to those practicing candlelight democracy.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union are expected to be the biggest beneficiaries of direct democracy, for they can easily mobilize their members to rally.
I am not sure such a unique form of direct democracy suits global trends. It would be so nice if Korea could make the leap to becoming a developed nation through direct democracy. I am still not sure if this can happen. Let’s watch the developments unfold for now.
The writer is the senior city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Chong-hyuk