What South Korea’s frequent protests say about its politics | ET REALITY


A recent rally in Seoul conveyed the sound of a rock festival (high-amplified speakers vibrating to the K-pop hit “Gangnam Style”), if not the look of one. The crowd, mostly older people, waved South Korean and American flags to the song’s revised chorus: “Anti-communist style!” As speaker after speaker whipped up the crowd with pro-American and anti-communist chants, the crowd chanted, “Hooray for President Yoon Suk Yeol!”

Days later, when thousands of protesters, mostly young marched In the very center of the city, they waved signs in their hands and chanted: “Yoon Suk Yeol out!”

yeol parka regular at this type of rallies, introduced himself as an inflatable Caricature of the South Korean leader. Fellow protesters took selfies while he was put in a headlock.

“Some people try to hit me,” said Park, 50. “But that’s the point: I want to show how angry people are with Yoon.”

Protest demonstrations have been a constant in this capital of Asia’s most vibrant democracy for decades, born during South Korea’s difficult march toward democracy in the 1980s, when massive crowds, often armed with stones, bombs, incendiaries and even stolen rifles, they clashed with riot police, tanks and paratroopers. Distrustful of their government, South Koreans have a penchant for taking all manner of grievances to the streets, to the point that demonstrations have become something of a national pastime.

As the coronavirus pandemic has receded, protest demonstrations have returned to Seoul with a vengeance. Barely a weekend goes by without the city center becoming a raucous bazaar filled with protest songs, slogans and livestreamed speeches that reveal a country increasingly polarized around its president.

The vast majority of protests are now organized by rival political activists who use social media, especially YouTube, to mobilize their supporters and livestream their meetings. With churchgoers and other older citizens on the right, and mostly younger progressives on the left, there has become a public referendum on Yoon and her policies.

But Yoon has found a much-needed ally in right-wing South Koreans, mostly Christians and elderly, who are uniting to defend him and the country from “pro-North Korean communists.” It’s a Cold War-era nickname that still has a big impact in a country that’s still technically at war with North Korea and still enforcing a draconian anti-communist “national security law.”

A typical demonstration features colorful banners and dance groups frolicking on a temporary platform while concert speakers hanging from crane trucks belt out protest songs. Organizers lead the crowd by chanting slogans, raising their fists in unison or waving national flags. Street vendors weave their way through the crowds selling rain covers in summer and plastic cushions in winter. The demonstration, which lasts an hour, usually ends with a march. Police officers walk alongside demonstrations to maintain order.

Most protests are not national news. But when they grow in size and intensity, they can portend a political storm to come.

Mass protests Spearheaded by progressives in 2017, it triggered the ouster of Park Geun-hye, the country’s then-conservative president. The months-long protests led by evangelical Christians galvanized a conservative backlash against Park’s progressive successor, Moon Jae-in, and helped Yoon win election as a conservative candidate in 2022.

“We cannot hand over our country to North Korea,” said the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, an organizer of the largest conservative demonstrations, during an interview at his Sarang Jeil Presbyterian church in Seoul. “We church people cannot sit still.”

Until Jun began mobilizing large conservative rallies several years ago, the outdoor protest scene had for decades been dominated primarily by students and unionized workers who paid often violent Campaigns against dictatorship, corruption and inequality. But in this rapidly aging society, older people’s votes wield more power than ever, and conservative churches have the resources to channel their hostility toward North Korea and South Korean progressives who favor inter-Korean reconciliation into a world-wide political process. national. motion.

In sermons and speeches, Jun has repeatedly warned that if progressives take power, South Korea will “communize” North Korea and China will replace the United States as its main ally. If that happens, he says, there will be “10 million South Koreans massacred” and “another 10 million will flee to the sea as refugees on boats.”

“I know all this because the Lord told me,” he said. during a demonstration in Augustcalling himself a “prophet.”

The protest demonstrations in South Korea share elements of the populism that sweeps much of the world. Both right-wing and left-wing activists accuse traditional media of spreading fake news and political bias. They rely on social media platforms like YouTube as alternative news sources, using them to spread fears that South Korea is being dominated by a deep state (of corrupt conservatives or pro-North Korean progressives, depending on which YouTube channel one listens to).

Livestreaming protest rallies has become a staple of partisan YouTube channels. Jun uses these channels to spread his viral narratives and attract older people to his rallies. “We must fight through YouTube,” Jun said during a large internal gathering of followerscalling them “YouTube patriots.”

In this factionalized, social media-obsessed country, conservative influencers like Jun have become so powerful that they helped “radicalize” Yoon’s government, Ahn Jin-geol, a veteran progressive activist, said in an interview.

In recent months, Yoon has drawn the political divide more directly than ever. In a nationally televised speech on August 15, he attacked “anti-state forces” who blindly followed “communist totalitarianism” and “always disguised themselves as democracy activists, human rights defenders, or progressive activists while engaging in political tactics.” despicable and unethical and in false propaganda.” .”

His comments were repeated to wild cheers during a conservative rally the same day.

Lee Jae-myung, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, accused Yoon of relying on “flag-wavers and right-wing extremists on YouTube” to sow political polarization. Last month, Lee began a 24-day hunger strike to double down on his claim that Yoon is dividing the country into friends and enemies.

​Progressives rally crowds with a litany of complaints about Mr. Yoon’s government, ranging from inflation (“Everything has gone up except our salaries!”) to the accusation that Mr. Yoon, a former attorney general , has used criminal investigations carried out by prosecutors. to disgrace his enemies, including the hostile media (“dictatorship of prosecutors!”).

“Yoon Suk Yeol is also nuclear wastewater!” He read another protest slogan, criticizing his government’s acceptance of Japan’s release of Fukushima water.

“From history, we know that we can achieve decisive change when we join forces in the streets,” said Lim Jae-kyong, 30, a progressive protester.

Progressives’ rallies often employ pageantry, reflecting a celebration of the democracy they won during a past military dictatorship. The singers satirize government policies. Young activists stage singing and dance performances depicting Mr. Yoon as a clueless drunk. Families often attend protests with children. Some dance as they march.

“Are you ready to have fun?” Ku Bon-ki, a progressive activist, shouted to the crowd. during a recent live-streamed rally. “Are you ready to fight?”

Conservative rallies are part political gatherings and part ostensibly Christian revivalism. As speakers attack prominent progressives – including Lee of the Democratic Party – with expletive-laden tirades, labeling them “North Korean spies,” many in the crowd raise their arms and shout “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!”

But conservatives also liven up their gatherings with patriotic songs and pop songs aimed at older people, such as “What’s wrong with my age?” The song’s chorus – “It’s a great age to fall in love” – is changed to “It’s a great age to become a patriot.”

Jeong Sook-hee, 54, a daycare worker who recently attended a conservative rally in central Seoul, called the experience “like going to a baseball field,” referring to Korea’s boisterous ball games. from the south.

“You sing, dance and scream as you please,” he said. “You relieve the stress of the daily routine.”

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