Literary critic; Professor Emeritus, Seoul National University
*The following talk was given as a keynote speech at the Candlelight International Forum on ‘Plaza Democracy and Prospects of Social Change’ at Seoul Global Center, Korea, 24 May 2018. The conference was sponsored jointly by Records and Commemoration Committee of People’s Action against President Park Geun-hye and Korea Democracy Foundation. Participants included activists and publicists of ‘plaza democracy’ from Iceland, Japan, Spain, Taiwan and Tunisia as well as South Korea.
1. The Candlelight Resistance Movement and the Candlelight Revolution
The large-scale candlelight demonstrations in South Korea from October 2016 to April 2017, often called ch’otbul hangjaeng or Candlelight Resistance Action, were the beginning of a great change that might be termed ‘the Candlelight Revolution’ (ch’otbul hyŏkmyŏng). But in what sense may we define it as a revolution?
Some admirers of the candlelight demonstrations use that term to foreground the unprecedented size and duration of the demonstrations and to the ousting of a repressive government by thoroughly peaceful means. They cite not just the peaceful nature but the festive atmosphere and the abundance of innovative actions throughout the period. But there is also sizable scholarly opinion that those features are not sufficient to qualify the events as a revolution. Absence of revolutionary violence and the impeachment of the president and creation of a new regime through constitutional procedures would rather, it is argued, distinguish the candlelight movement from a real revolution. The ‘candlelight’ was, after all, a restoration and re-activation of the 1987 constitution that Park Geun-hye had outraged; and if there is to be a revolution, so the argument goes, it must start under the new regime, as a ‘remaining challenge’ of the candlelight movement.
But if the Candlelight Resistance Movement wasn’t already revolutionary, it would be hard to expect a government launched through electoral process or citizens who have put down their candles to produce a revolution at this late date. Do not such unrealistic expectations rather reflect the overlooking of the unique character of the Candlelight Revolution? Is it not time, too, for us to rethink the classical notion of a revolution modeled on the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century or the Russian Revolution of the early twentieth?
2. Particularity of South Korea as a Divided Country
There is one crucial difference between South Korea of the candlelight demonstrations, on one hand, and, on the other, not only France and Russia but, say, Tunisia of the ‘Jasmin Revolution’ or Iceland of ‘Pots-and-pans Revolution’ represented at this conference: namely, that Korea is a divided country. In the Korean Peninsula, moreover, as the armistice regime of neither peace nor war after the Korean War of 1950-53 persisted for over sixty years, a peninsular-wide structure that could be called a ‘division system’ has come to establish itself. One of its fetters is a severe limit to the rule of law, and even the end of military dictatorship through the June Uprisings of 1987 managed to shake, but not overcome, the division system. Hence, even though a democratic constitution replaced the openly anti-democratic systems of Park Chung-Hee’s Yushin regime (1972-79) and Chun Du-hwan’s Fifth Republic (1980-87), there continued to operate the age-old rule that, in the situation of national division, the constitution could be suspended at will if the anti-Communist and anti-North Korea cause so required. It amounted to a sort of ‘hidden constitution’ (imyŏn hŏnpŏp), invisible in the pages of the written constitution. The evil effects of that hidden constitution reached their peak in the arbitrary rule and retreat of democracy in the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye days.
The candlelight demonstrations put a stop to the operations of the hidden constitution and, by activating the written constitution, put an end to the Park Geun-hye regime. In other words, they carried out “a more essential revolution that changed a country where constitutions were not observed into one where they were.” (Paik Nak-chung, “Let Us Not Keep Still in the New Year, Either,” Changbi Weekly Commentary, 28 December 2016) The Moon Jae-in Government born in the upshot would thus be a revolutionary government. But just as the Candlelight Revolution is a very peculiar revolution, the Moon regime cannot be other than a very peculiar kind of revolutionary government.
Although Mr Moon won handily with over 40% of the vote in a four-part race, the electoral phase signified a perilous time for the revolution. Because the candlelight demonstrations signified a revolution that rescued the written constitution from the grips of the hidden constitution, the presidential election following the impeachment and dismissal of Park Geun-hye had to abide by the extant constitution and election and political party laws, and even though no such dramatic reversal through elections as in France in May 1968 occurred, the election campaign within the framework of the 1987 regime meant an inevitable weakening of revolutionary dynamism. The fact that South Korea of 2017 did not allow a reversal like the one in France of 1968 attests to the strength of the Candlelight Revolution (as well as to the weakness of South Korea’s powers that be in comparison with those of the Gaullist France).
The possibilities open to the government that came into existence thanks to that strength are also quite peculiar. On one hand, it starts under the restriction that its revolutionary tasks, too, must be accomplished through constitutional means. On the other hand, it can wield powers that no previous government after a peaceful change of administration enjoyed. People pay little heed to the opposition’s (the former governing party’s) cry of ‘political reprisal’ even though two former presidents are in prison and the new administration vigorously continues its investigations and prosecutions of the former governments’ wrongdoings. And even while the people’s livelihood has not seen much improvement and many civic activists lament that “the fundamental, significant reform of society, which was the true desire of the candles, has not been realized” (see the organizers’ Guidelines for this Forum), the president’s popularity rating in the polls continues to remain unprecedentedly high even after more than a year in office.
3. The Candlelight Revolution and Peace in the Korean Peninsula
True, the president’s high popularity rating in recent weeks owes much to the prospects of peace in the peninsula. Yet we should not read it as his diplomatic success making up for inadequate performance of revolutionary tasks. Peace in the Korean Peninsula represents one of the prime tasks entrusted to the candlelight government.
Inter-Korean relations did not surface as a prominent issue during the demonstrations. However, even though popular slogans centered on the removal of Park Geun-hye, the demands of the people in the streets did not stop at the change of government or punishment of criminals, but expressed an ardent desire for a just, safe and peaceful society. The relative eclipse of inter-Korean problems was because South Korean people who had all along been harassed by charges of ‘pro-North leftist’ leanings did not wish to invite unnecessary controversy; and also because during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye years South Korea’s initiative in the peninsular affairs had been almost totally ceded to the United States, North Korea, and partly to China, so that people tended not to feel those affairs as their own business. There was a sort of popular intuition that urgent domestic issues had to be tackled first before moving on to restore South Korea’s initiative in inter-Korean relations.
Thus they first punished those who, relying on the hidden constitution, indulged in all sorts of outrageous injustices and corruptions. But was not this hidden constitution rooted precisely in the North-South division and the resulting military tension? The candlelight demonstrations temporarily put in abeyance but did not abrogate the hidden constitution, which received a new lease of life during the electoral process and, even after the launching of the new government, continues to exert considerable influence through the legislature elected before the ‘candlelight’ and numerous other strongholds of vested interests. In addition, as the confrontation between the U.S. and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) kept intensifying throughout 2017, many worried that the Moon Jae-in government, by focusing mainly on the relatively easier task of exposing and punishing past abuses at home and thus neglecting peace-making in the peninsula, might end up with only partial success in domestic reforms as well. I myself warned that “it is in the nature of the division system that, if the Moon government … fails to convey and implement on inter-Korean and diplomatic fronts the revolutionary demands of the candlelight citizens, the momentum of its domestic reforms and abuse-cleansing is bound quickly to be dissipated.” (Paik Nak-chung, “Will ‘candlelight’ manage to create peace in the Korean Peninsula?”, Changbi Weekly Commentary, 13 September 2017)
I will not go into the details of how the inter-Korean relations have made rapid improvements since the beginning of 2018. The summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un (scheduled for June 12) is yet to take place, but a decisive turn was made by the ‘Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification in the Korean Peninsula’ (27 April 2018) between the top leaders of North and South. While this evidently was an action at the very top, we need also to emphasize that such an outcome would not have been possible without the Candlelight Revolution. If we take ‘civic participation’ in its broad sense when we say that civic participation characterizes ‘reunification Korean-style’, the candlelight demonstrations that kicked out a regime opposed to improvement in inter-Korean relations was an exemplary act of civic participation in the reunification process. If a ‘candlelight government’ had not ensued and made earnest efforts for ‘peace, prosperity, and reunification’ in the peninsula, the DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un, relying only on Trump’s eagerness for political results or Moon Je-in’s personal sincerity, could not have made his strategic decision. (Regarding the influence of the ‘candlelight’ on North Korea’s decision, see Suh Jae-Jung, “The Warmth of Candles, the Spring Winds of Peace,” Changbi Weekly Commentary, 21 March 2018.)
The nature of the division system by which worsening inter-Korean relations can stymie domestic reforms in the South implies that a significant improvement in those relations can provide, in its turn, new impetus to resolving domestic problems. Hŏ Chŏng, head of the transition government after the April 19 Student Revolution of 1960, pledged to ‘carry out revolutionary political reforms by non-revolutionary means’, but this in effect was an announcement of renouncing the revolution. For the first item in the ‘Five Policy Measures’, announced on May 3 after consultation with the U.S. Ambassador McConaughy, pledged ‘a further strengthening of anti-Communist policies’. If he had opted for national reconciliation and alleviation of the North-South confrontation, in the nature of a divided country the road would have been wide open for carrying out revolutionary tasks by non-revolutionary means. After more than a half-century such a road has actually opened before the candlelight government.
4. Carrying Out Revolutionary Tasks by Non-Revolutionary Means
As already mentioned, the nature of the Candlelight Revolution requires the candlelight government to resort to non-revolutionary means. Despite such limits, the reforms accomplished in South Korean society on the strength of the ‘candlelight’ are far from negligible. Abuses by those in positions of authority and the horrible acts of state violence committed in the past have been brought to light through the administration’s powers of investigation and prosecution, numerous victims and survivors have begun to experience a real sense of relief, and a number of wrongdoers have been brought to justice. In addition, movements for social reform such as the resuscitation of public broadcast networks, movements against bullying in work sites and commercial transactions, and criticism and condemnation ingrained discrimination against women and sexual violence are all phenomena that cannot be understood apart from the ‘candlelight’. Such citizen-led changes in society’s chemistry and constitution represent an essential attribute of the Candlelight Revolution.
Evidently the existence of a legislature elected before the ‘candlelight’ presents a big impediment. The former governing party still occupies more than one third of National Assembly seats, which gives it veto power over any constitutional amendment and enables it to block most reform measures requiring legislation. Such a situation gives rise to the lament that the ‘candlelight’, while changing everything, has failed to change the former governing party.
Yet, seen in a different light, the candles did change the Free Korea Party, too. It is something that was keenly felt during the last presidential election: all past candidates of that party tried to come to power by beguiling the voters with slogans like ‘economic democratization’, ‘middle-of-the-road pragmatism’, and ‘compassionate conservatism’, actually succeeding twice in a row (Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye) and almost doing so the previous two times (Lee Hoe-chang in 1997 and 2002), but in 2017 its presidential candidate didn’t even make a serious effort to deceive the electorate and obtain swing votes, preoccupied as he was in rallying the remnants of the party in total disarray so as to defend such vested interests as remained yet. In the upshot he did succeed in polling nearly 25% and reviving the decimated party but suffered an electoral defeat by a margin wider than any of its previous candidates.
It is doubtful if such a strategy of rallying the remnants will continue to be effective. The big opposition party has turned into an even more feckless and ludicrous group as the inter-Korean summit meeting produced memorable results and popular expectations for a successful U.S.-North Korea summit have grown high. Party cohesion seems to have disappeared in the current local elections campaign. Even so, there is little prospect for change in the number of Assembly seats preventing constitutional amendment and most reform legislations. What then should the candlelight government and candlelight citizenry do about it?
No doubt the president will need to provide a new order of political leadership, taking advantage of the authority he has acquired by the renewal of peace process in the peninsula. Civil society cannot advise him on the details of how he should go about it. But one does need to approach each task in the context of the Candlelight Revolution.
For instance, it is beyond question that in order to institutionalize the work of the Candlelight Revolution we need a constitution that meets its revolutionary needs. At the same time, however, we need to ponder the fact that the candlelight demonstrations, unlike the June uprisings of 1987, did not raise constitutional amendment as a priority. In 1987, precisely the abolition of the constitutions of ‘imperial presidency’ under Park Chung-Hee and Chun Du-hwan and the instauration of direct election of the president was the most urgent task. But the candlelight demonstrations aimed at a more fundamental question than revising the written constitution, namely, abrogation of the hidden constitution that had continued to hamper democracy even under the considerably democratized constitution of 1987.
This is a ‘remaining challenge’ of the ‘candlelight’, and efforts at constitutional amendment should be adjusted to that context. The hidden constitution in question, rather than laid down by any specific article of the written constitution, embodies an attribute of the division system that has seeped into every corner of society, including in the minds and hearts of the population, and thus its abrogation calls for a many-sided, persistent, and flexible endeavor. Improvement of inter-Korean relations, for instance, is not a formally constitutional question, but represents a decisive part of the above-mentioned process of changing ‘society’s chemistry and constitution’. And one must not forget, either, that President Trump’s promise to a denuclearized North Korea of prosperity on the ‘South Korean model’—meaning probably the Park Chung-Hee model or perhaps the model of ‘Hell Korea’ decried by today’s South Korean youth—and the high hopes of many business corporations to hit a jackpot by taking part in it could, if realized, make ‘changing society’s chemistry’ more difficult. All the greater reason why sagacious pressure from an awakened citizenry should make itself felt in the now imminent process of building an inter-Korean confederation.
Consequently, amendment of the written constitution must also be approached with a view to find the most expedient means of furthering the Candlelight Revolution, rather than attempting to produce an ideal document. It is certainly not the right attitude to talk, as do some leaders of the governing Democratic Party, that because of the opposition’s reneging on its promise of a referendum on the constitution in June 2018, ‘golden time has gone by’ and we can only wait for the general elections of 2020 for another attempt. Instead, we must keep alive the momentum for a constitutional reform by achieving even a very partial amendment—by accepting, for instance, the Free Korea Party’s demand for parliamentary nomination of the Prime Minister, in exchange for its agreement to reform electoral laws. But even more important is a radical change in the frame of thinking that, since it is neither possible nor desirable to obtain at one shot a constitution commensurate with the aspirations of the Candlelight Revolution, citizens should be allowed frequently to initiate the amendment process and to go on revising the constitution piecemeal to ‘a fitting cut’. President Moon himself has proposed a phased amendment, beginning with enlargement of basic rights and the powers of local governments, but from the perspective of the Candlelight Revolution it is even more important that ordinary citizens should have the power to introduce an amendment proposal and that, once such a proposal has been duly put on the table, a deliberative process in and outside the National Assembly should be made obligatory. In my view, movements in civil society for constitutional amendment should focus on this direction.
5. Global Contexts
In the global context, too, the candlelight resistance actions of 2016-17 were of unprecedented size and an astonishing example of peaceful revolution, but they also embodied a lengthy learning process both at home and abroad. The March First Independence Movement of 1919, though ending with large human casualty due to the Japanese colonial authorities’ brutal suppression, represented a memorable mass uprising with an explicitly stated aim of non-violence. The April 19 Revolution and the June Uprisings, too, suffered bloodshed due to the government’s violent response, but both provided signal examples of the power of bare-handed resistance, and each gave birth to a new republic. And the candlelight demonstrations of 2008, frustrating the Lee Myung-bak government’s initial anti-democratic drives, made the people realize the enormous potential of a peaceful direct action.
On top of such a learning process, institutional and technical conditions to buttress the success of a candlelight resistance were in order by 2016-17. Despite the limits of the 1987 regime and the retreats in democracy under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, the times no longer permitted the government to mercilessly suppress peaceful demonstrations as had the regimes of Park Chung-Hee and Chun Du-hwan. Moreover, due to the development of social network service (SNS) and other technological devices, the capacity of citizens for mutual communication and horizontal networking had immensely increased—in comparison even with 2008, not to mention 1987.
Such a process of learning and expansion of basis for peaceful revolution seems to be a global trend, though with huge differences in different countries and regions. In most countries the gap between the government and its people in the capacity for mobilizing violent means seems to be widening (except in the case of professional organizations for violence like Al Quaeda and the Islamic State). On the other hand, due to advances in communication technology and spreading consciousness of human rights, even the most repressive dictatorships find an all-out violent crackdown on unarmed citizens increasingly burdensome. One learning effect to add is the historical experience calling for rethinking on the traditional notions of revolution modeled on the French or Russian Revolution. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, setting aside wars of national liberation—or revolutions that combined the character of a war of national liberation, as in China, Vietnam and Cuba—we find few successful examples of classical social revolution. Moreover, the Russian Revolution itself lost its appeal as a model with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Russia’s turn to capitalism.
In contrast, as the activists of plaza democracy participating in this forum testify, and as shown by examples in countries not represented today—including Nepal, Myanmar, and numerous others in Eastern and Western Europe and Central and South America—demonstrate, peaceful direct action by the citizenry (though with differing degrees of success) evidently represents an increasingly dominant global trend. Just as the Candlelight Revolution of South Korea has benefited both directly and indirectly from the trend in foreign nations, I hope the accomplishment of revolutionary tasks at home will contribute to the strengthening of that global trend.
Translated from the Korean by the Author