[Column] A dangerous companionship

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[Column] A dangerous companionship

Suh Kyoung-ho
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“You can stomp on Lee Jae-myung, but don’t stomp on people’s livelihood. You can crash Lee Jae-myung, but don’t hurt democracy. Don’t ruin our country’s future,” yelled Lee, the chairman of the Democratic Party (DP).

“The Yoon Suk Yeol administration is abusing investigative authority to oppress the opposition through the elimination of opponents, political ploy, media clampdown, and spy framing. Is this an investigation or a hunt?” shouted Kim Min-woong, the head of the Chotbul (Candlelight Vigil) Movement.

The outcries could be heard at two rallies in different sites in Seoul last Saturday. Lee spoke at a DP-hosted rally condemning “prosecutorial dictatorship” under the Yoon administration, and Kim spoke at a candlelight vigil march demanding President Yoon to step down and a special investigation on his wife. The two men were equally passionate in their rants.
Supporters of Democratic Party Chair Lee Jae-myung stage a rally to denounce the prosecution for a “politically-motivated investigation” of Lee over his alleged taking of a third-party bribe through a football club he headed as Seongnam mayor in the 2010s. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

The DP and the Chotbul Movement carry different weight. The DP is the majority party holding 169 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. The Chotbul Movement formed by progressive civic groups hit the street for massive candlelight protests against the president from August last year, when Yoon was just three months in office. Its rallies have been held almost every Saturday since last August.

Some DP legislators joined the Chotbul rally and the chorus to demand Yoon’s resignation, which provoked controversy last year. The DP distanced itself from such “individual actions” from its lawmakers. But the atmosphere of the two rallies has changed much as the DP and the Chotbul Movement acted in sync as if preplanned. First of all, their locations overlapped. The eight-lane roads from Namdaemun to the city hall were occupied by protesters from the two groups. The DP set up its podium near Namdaemun and the civilian group on the other side, near the Seoul City Hall. Some conservative groups squeezed in to occupy some areas for a sit-down near the Bank of Korea close to Namdaemun. But the downtown areas leading up to the city hall were the leftist front’s world.

Second, the two events took place nearly at the same time. The DP started its rally at 3:30 p.m. followed by the civilian rally from 5 p.m. The progressive group waited until the DP finished its rally.

Third, the crowds also overlapped. Most of the leadership of the DP left the area after its rally. But a considerable number of DP supporters clad in outfits and caps in blue, the DP’s color, stayed on. The crowds only had to turn themselves around for the following candlelight rally. The downtown street turned into a huge blue wave. The blue-and-white DP banners denouncing the government for a “prosecutorial dictatorship” and soaring prices were mixed with red posters calling for Yoon’s resignation. Both the DP and the Chotbul rally organizers estimated a turnout of 300,000, more or less admitting to a joint event. In a comment on Sunday, the Chotbul organizer denied a co-hosting of the rallies. But he admitted that its members sometimes shared the space. The Chotbul Movement praised the weekend rally as “a watershed for candlelight protest” against the conservative government.

The Chotbul Movement supporters are South Korean citizens with the right to assembly and the freedom of expression. Many people who cannot agree with the protest calling for the president to step down could tolerate the weekend traffic jam due to the massive protests by the group. But a majority party hosting a street rally for the first time in six years to protest the prosecution’s investigation of its boss and riding on a civilian movement is quite an embarrassing sight. A few DP lawmakers took the podium and cried for Yoon’s resignation even though he was legitimately elected to office.

In a lecture during Moon Jae-in’s presidency, Prof. Choi Jan-jip, a renowned political science scholar at Korea University, claimed that the crisis of South Korean democracy came from the candlelight protests for presidential impeachment. The stage to solve conflicts for politicians should be the National Assembly, not the streets. It may not be just the DP’s fault for a majority party to turn to streets.

The street protests underscore today’s political void in Korea. When politics fail, street protests become frequent. The government and the People Power Party also have to share the responsibility. An uncompromising president and a lack of effective guidance from the presidential office and the PPP are helping fuel the candlelight movement on the streets.
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