February 9, 2017 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

South Korea and Trump's America: A tale of two protests

American demonstrators are bigger on black humor than South Koreans, but will they maintain momentum?

JOHN BURTON

Shortly before I left Seoul -- my home for half the 34 years I spent abroad -- to return to the U.S., I observed the massive weekly protests against South Korean President Park Geun-hye that led to her impeachment over an influence-peddling scandal.

I watched the demonstrations mushroom in a matter of weeks from around 8,000 people to an estimated 1 million, filling the city's central Gwanghwamun Square. Gone were the days of violent confrontation between protesters and police; these gatherings were calm and cheerful, and many demonstrators even brought their children.

The fact that so many South Koreans were willing to gather each Saturday in Seoul (and elsewhere in the country) was an indication that citizens were taking their hard-earned democratic rights seriously, providing an inspiring example of civic engagement. The protesters even cleaned up the trash, leaving the protest sites nearly spotless.

Nonetheless, the protests were fueled by the same populist anger that has recently swept the U.S. and Western Europe, as the middle class voices fears about its prospects.

South Koreans have one of the highest levels of household debt in the world, mainly because of spiraling property and education costs. Wages have stagnated, despite long working hours. The economy is stumbling amid growing Chinese competition, which threatens the shipbuilding, steel and chemicals industries.

The unemployment rate among the nation's well-educated youth is at a near-record high, while the population is aging rapidly due to the lowest birthrate in the developed world. Entrepreneurs complain that it is difficult to start businesses because of the economic dominance of the family-owned conglomerates, or chaebol, and heavy government regulation.

The pent-up discontent of South Koreans struggling with a new era of slow growth erupted when it was revealed that Choi Soon-sil, a close confidante of the president, was allegedly soliciting millions of dollars from the chaebol in return for providing government favors. The chants I heard at the protests were as much about condemning corruption among government and business elites as they were about Park's resignation.

In the U.S., similar complaints are being heard. It was that same witches' brew of dashed social expectations and economic malaise that propelled Donald Trump into the presidency, with his promise to "make America great again."

Ugly mood

So it was with some trepidation that I prepared to return to Washington, D.C. The mood in the U.S. was rapidly becoming uglier. My South Korean wife, unnerved by Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric, worried about whether she would be able to stay in America. Our daughter, who developed a strong interest in minority rights during her last four years of studying in the U.S., feared an erosion in civil liberties.

But populist anger was not the only common theme that marked my transition from South Korea to America. There was also the talk of impeachment. Trump may well be the first U.S. president to have triggered discussion of possible impeachment even before his inauguration. While conservative lawmakers want to investigate Trump's alleged ties to Russia, liberals warn that conflicts of interest involving his business empire could bring him down.

The "Women's March on Washington" on Jan. 21 brought the same sense of vibrancy and resistance to the streets that I had witnessed in Seoul, although the mood was somewhat more relaxed. The crowd appeared to be even bigger than the protests I had witnessed in South Korea, although organizers initially estimated the turnout at only half a million. People streamed past me for hours as I stood in front of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

While most protesters in Seoul carried printed signs making a single point, "Resign Park Geun-hye," their American counterparts were more creative, with witty slogans suitable for televising or tweeting -- Trump's favorite form of communication. Some read: "Melania: You could have done better" (referring to Trump's wife); "My wife couldn't be here today. She is in Antarctica studying a Chinese hoax" (satirizing Trump's claims about climate change); and "Hope, not grope" (commenting on his admission of inappropriate sexual behavior).

Many South Koreans and Americans believe their democracies have reached a low point. But the organizers of the Seoul demonstrations can teach their U.S. counterparts something important: If they want to achieve significant change, they need to show up every week, not just once. Watching the intensifying protests across America against Trump's travel ban on refugees as well as citizens from seven Muslim countries, I could only think that U.S. protesters may be at last getting the message.

John Burton, former Seoul bureau chief for the Financial Times, is a Washington D.C.-based writer and editor.

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