Lessons from the vigilsPeople first congregated at Gwanghwamun Plaza in central Seoul on Oct. 29, 2016 with candles in their hands and banners denouncing President Park Geun-hye for sharing her presidential power with her shadowy friend. Another group gathered in the same place on Saturday to commemorate the second anniversary of the beginning of the vigil protests. The organizers claim that over 1,000 people arrived, while police counted the modest number of 400. During their peak in November, the weekend rallies drew 1.9 million people from all over the country. Over five months, more than 15 million people took part in the weekly rallies. The fact that the group dwindled to at most 1,000 should not be a matter of concern.
But contorting the meaning and spirit behind the vigil protests is a problem. Park Seok-woon, the co-chair of the Korea Alliance for Progressive Movements, attacked the so-called “evils of the past” that still exist in the legislature, government, and society for discrediting and distorting the candlelight protests. Kim Joon-woo, the secretary general of the Lawyers for Democratic Society, cried out for an overhaul of the electoral system so that the National Assembly is composed according to the approval rating of political parties. Kim Myeong-hwan, chairman of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), demanded the elimination of irregular work positions. Many public institutions have come under fire for using the conversion of irregular workers to permanent status to benefit existing employees and family members. This has reduced job openings at a time when the youth jobless rate hovers at an all-time high. Unions claimed that these accusations are fake news. Supporters of the Me Too movement and farmers also joined the rally out of their own self-interest.
Two years ago, the vigils had a single theme. It raged against the abuse of elected power and hoped to restore the state’s dignity and constitutional integrity. People have become one regardless of their ideology, age and class through their aspiration to destroy deep-rooted social problems and injustices. The vigils did not belong to progressives or unions. It was a grass-roots outcry against corruption.
Since the progressive front produced a president, it uses the candlelight movement as an asset. The Moon Jae-in administration must not think that demands from leftist groups represent the will and opinion of the general public. It instead should ask itself whether disinterest in the vigil anniversary means that participants from two years ago have grown disillusioned.