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The Day I Protested the President in Gwangju

I waited in the middle of a road in downtown Gwangju, in front of a stage, watching as the crew fiddled with the audio set-up, waiting for the action to continue. It was a Saturday night in the middle of December and a cold wind blew over a sea of hoods and woolly heads of the people around me, but our collective body warmth and the flames of the candles we held kept us warm.

The mood was pleasant but eager – a sense of anticipation in the air to get things started. The stage set up was finally completed and a lady stepped up, shouting something in Korean; I didn’t understand a word she said but the sentiment needed no translation and I raised my candle in unison with the cheering people around me.

Gwangju Protest Candle
Concert or protest?

You would think I was at some sort of rock concert on a weekend night in South Korea, but no, I was just one of hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the protest efforts to get South Korean President Park Geun-Hye to step down from her position. These protest rallies took place in cities all over South Korea since 26 October 2016 and were staged regularly every Saturday evening – this was Week 8 and the motion to impeach had been passed and approved by the majority of the National assembly earlier that week, but the protests showed no signs of slowing down despite the cold weather.

Now I’m not the most political aware person out there, and even less so when I travel and don’t have as much access to my friends and facebook feeds where I get most of my news from. I knew vaguely before flying to Seoul that something was happening in South Korea’s political arena but it didn’t have much impact on tourism, so I didn’t bother finding out too much more. I was more caught up with my travel plans and getting back on the road for the last bit of my Career Break.

Never would I imagine kicking off this last bit of travel by finding my way to Gwangju, waving a candle and surrounded by signs demanding that President Park step down, now!

Gwangju Protest Me Candles
I was trying for fierce, I think I look more hungry than angry

Gwangju, the most democratic region in South Korea

I visited Gwangju for 2 nights at the recommendation of my hostel in Seoul, and ended up making friends with some of the locals who were celebrating their year-end party in the beautiful cafe which doubles up as the common room of my hostel at Pedro’s House [ affiliate link]. The lovely A invited us for a round of Makgeolli (Korean rice liquor) at a community event the following afternoon, and invited us to join her at the protest rally that she would be going to after that event.

Gwangju was probably the perfect place to experience the protests, for while Seoul’s protest rallies were the largest, Gwangju has a reputation for being the most democratic region in South Korea, largely due to a historic and unfortunately bloody democratic uprising between local students and the government back in 18 May 1980, remembered today as the Gwangju Massacre or just 5-18. A told us that the Gwangju people are proud of this reputation and not afraid to stand up for what they think is right.

Gwangju Protest Signs
Proud protesters posing for my photo

Park Geun-Hye was the first female president of South Korea with a pretty dramatic history where her family was assassinated by North Korean spies, but she had gotten into a huge political scandal where she was accused of using her clout to gain personal favours for herself and a close spiritual cult leader and family friend, to the extent where this advisor actually had sway over major political decisions. Also, Park was apparently inexplicably missing with no explanation for 7 crucial hours during the crisis of the Sewol ferry sinking – conspiracy theories suggest she was getting plastic surgery during that time. It all sounds like a K-drama of its own, but this was what my Korean friends told me when I asked them why they were trying to impeach the President – you have to admit some of it is pretty bizarre sounding – though the gist of it is corroborated by most of the news articles that you can google for yourself.

But I was less concerned about the whos and whys, and more curious just to see what a protest rally was like, never having witnessed any before in Singapore. Staging protests is a pretty rare sight for us, what with our strict laws and a history of our quashing dissenting views – we have a lot of keyboard warriors but few are brave and willing enough to physically protest anything. Also, any protest that makes the news generally is quite bloody – I had imagery of tensions and simmering violence in my head, but A assured us that we would be fine and it really was not quite that dramatic.

The Korean Protest Process

I said earlier that this protest rally felt like attending a rock concert, and I stand by that. Actually, it was like attending a really well organised and free public rock concert.

Gwangju Protest Table
Volunteers at the table hanging out signs and candles

The main street in downtown Gwangju had been cordoned off by the police since afternoon, and it was quite crowded by the time we turned up just before 7pm. We headed over to a table manned by volunteers on the sidewalk and dropped off a small donation of 2,000 KRW (S$2.50), and in return received:

  • A candle with a printed cup to catch the wax in and not burn our hands
  • Our own ‘down with Park’ sign to wave around
  • A piece of foam so we could sit comfortably on the tarmac (whutttttt)

Then we found our way to some empty spots near the stage and sit down on our fancy foam cushions. In total we stayed for about an hour, and even though most of it was in Korean and A had to translate for us, I found myself pretty engaged. There was an actual programme throughout the night – you had short timed segments where different groups of people were allowed to stand on stage and say their piece. We had a lawyer explain the intricacies of the impeachment process and the timeline to expect, and another young man talked about the Sewol ferry sinking from 2016 although I don’t quite remember the details of what he said. To break up the segments, there were local musicians and dancers who supported the cause entertaining the crowd.

Gwangju Protest Stage
My view of the stage – I was pretty near the stage there were A LOT of people behind me

I was very impressed by how well run and thought through this whole affair was – the stage set up was of professional standards, and according to A, all this was funded solely through donations by individuals and corporations. A very orderly line with nets was passed down the crowd periodically so you could drop in additional donations.

And of course there were the bits of chanting and candle waving from time to time to reinforce the “Down with Park” message, and several camera crew well positioned to capture the proceedings, especially the bit where we symbolically blew out and re-lit the candle to show that even if they tried to keep the people in the dark, the truth and light will always win. We returned the foam pieces and candle to be reused when we left, but I kept my sign as a souvenir of this experience.

Gwangju Protest Sign
Fellow traveller K posing with the sign for me. His determined face is much better than mine

While the protests were largely peaceful throughout this period, there were still some reports of scuffles and injuries with police and the growing camp of pro-Park supporters coming out of the woodwork, and sadly a few deaths when Park was actually impeached in March 2017.

I told some friends that if all protests were so well run and peaceful, I would be happy to protest more often! But jokes aside, it was an eye opening experience for me – I feel that in Singapore we have been overly conditioned to believe that any sort of dissent is bad for harmony and the country’s well being, but peaceful protests like these show that you can stand up to what you believe in without resorting to violence. I’ve always been averse to conflict and would rather everyone just get along, but I’m starting to think that perhaps it’s more important that people learn how to disagree civilly and promote healthy and non-violent discourse instead.

Still, I doubt you’re going to find me staging any protests or attending large rallies – I honestly hate being around big crowds, but I’ll catch a glimpse of the dog-eared corners of that red sign and remind myself to be a little bit less apathetic and more aware – it seems like the very least I can do.

Gwangju Protest Info
Info of 5.18 in English and ribbons in support of the protest

Have you ever been in a protest? Tell me about your experience in the comments.

Read more about my adventures exploring South Korea or see what I got up to exploring Gwangju and Damyang.