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Politics

South Korea's 'street politics' highlights growing divisions

Millions gather in massive rallies for and against embattled Justice Minister

Supporters of Justice Minister Cho Kuk gather outside the Seoul prosecutor's office on Oct. 5. (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

SEOUL -- Supporters and opponents of scandal-hit Justice Minister Cho Kuk are holding massive rallies in Seoul, competing over who can draw the most protesters. Street protests to bring about political or social change are a tradition in South Korea, but fierce confrontations amplify the mutual distrust and deepen divisions.

"Communists, get out!" a middle-aged woman shouted at a man at Seocho subway station in Seoul in the afternoon of Oct. 5. "What? Say that again!" the man shouted back, causing an uproar around them. Supporters of the minister had gathered at the station to take part in a rally in front of the Supreme Prosecutors' Office.

Police intervened to calm the two people down. But the incident highlighted the divisions between conservative and liberal groups, which are deep and widespread.

The rally followed a major demonstration in support of embattled Cho held on Sept. 28. Participants filled a boulevard in front of the office, chanting their support for the minister and calling for prosecutorial reforms. The civil group that organized the rally said 3 million people took part. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea said on Oct. 6 that the event heralded the revival of "square democracy," brought about by voluntary participation of citizens who support reforming the country's prosecution system.

Cho Kuk, then a nominee for justice minister, attends a hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul on Sept. 6.   © Reuters

Although the party stressed that participation was "voluntary," many chartered buses with license plates from Jeolla Province, its main support base, were parked nearby, suggesting that organized mobilization was behind the rally.

Two days before -- Oct. 3 is South Korea's National Foundation Day -- conservatives including the opposition Liberty Korea Party, held a rally in Gwanghwamun Plaza to demand Cho's resignation. The party says the rally drew 3 million participants. The party's floor leader, Na Kyung-won, countered the claim by the Sept. 28 rally organizer that it had drawn 2 million people. "If 2 million people had gathered in such a small place, there would be 20 million here," she shouted.

Placards bearing the names of cities in Gyeongsang Province, a conservative stronghold, were seen at the rally. A significant number of people had apparently been mobilized from outside Seoul.

The numbers announced by the organizers may have been exaggerated, but undoubtedly, a large number of people took part. Politicians on both sides said the rallies were manifestations of "will of the people" and used them to justify their stances.

Protests are part of everyday life in South Korea. Not a weekend goes by without a rally at Gwanghwamun Plaza. Organizers range from political parties to labor unions to civic groups.

South Koreans actively participate in protests because they know they can change society by taking to the streets. In 1960, university students accusing the government of rigging an election forced President Rhee Syngman to resign. Anti-government protests in 1987 helped bring down a military government and introduce democracy. "Candlelight protests" led to the impeachment and ouster of Park Geun-hye, the conservative predecessor of President Moon Jae-in.

Conservatives gather for a rally to demand Justice Minister Cho Kuk's resignation in Seoul on Oct. 3. (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

However, the escalating confrontation between conservatives and liberals is putting South Korean society at risk. Citizens seem to be drawn into political fighting and harbor growing hostility against people who don't share the same view. "Doesn't South Korea have representative democracy? If things are decided this way, we don't need lawmakers," a taxi driver said disdainfully.

Some liberal people have started to warn about an excess of "street politics."

"The parliament no longer fulfills its role as a place for consensus and compromise through discussions, and public squares have become the space where power is demonstrated," Professor Lee Jin-woo of Pohang University of Science and Technology wrote in a column of the liberal-leaning Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper. In a scathing attack on the government, he wrote, "When people are mobilized for power, it's fascism. People in power refuse to talk to opponents, let alone accept them, and try to communicate directly with people. ... It's a typical form of fascism."

The newspaper wrote in its editorial, "Incapable politics is driving people to the streets. If representative democracy continues to fail to function, more people will take to the streets and politics will lose its place forever."

President Moon said on Oct. 7, "It's a positive move that people express their will in a direct way when representative politics cannot fully reflect their opinions," but urged restraint, saying, "It's not desirable that political opposition goes beyond discussions and falls into a deep chasm of confrontation."

Despite his call, conservatives held a rally on Oct. 9 at Gwanghwamun Plaza. Liberals held one of their own on Oct. 12 as well.

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