Last year, South Koreans experienced a scandal in the government and in response, they formed mass protests to remove their president, Park Geun-hye, from office. These efforts were successful, and due to the pressure that protests put on the government, she was impeached last week. And if they can do it, can’t we?
Protesting isn’t new to the United States. We’ve had multiple historical instances in which mass protest brought about real change. In recent history, however, we’ve seen a rise in people “taking it to the streets” to speak out against injustice en masse. Protesting in the form of organized marches, groups, and actions has risen in the last few years as our political and social landscape has become more volatile. By looking deeper into what happened in South Korea, we can understand what “good” protesting can do for us and where we need to change our tactics.
The Myth of Winning
“Western journalists are always surprised at South Korea’s culture of protest. They tend to talk about it like it appeared yesterday out of nowhere,” says Anton Hur, a writer and translator living in Seoul, South Korea. He is a Korean national who spent many of his formative years living overseas, but his entire adulthood was spent in Korea. He is a veteran of the Korean Army, which earned him the title of a Person of Distinguished Service after he was discharged.
Regarding the success of South Korea’s mass protests, he explains that “historically, Korea has had this culture of non-violent resistance for at least over a hundred years, before Gandhi, before Martin Luther King, Jr. This is hardly the first-time Koreans overthrew a government through large-scale peaceful protest: Rhee Syngman, Chun Doo-hwan, and now Park Geun-hye are all presidents who had to step down because of non-violent, nationwide protests. Protesting really worked for my country because protesting tends to work for my country.”
As a past delegate of the New Progressives and founding member of the Korean Green Party, Hur himself not only participated in the 2016 protest but was also involved in the 2008 anti-government protests. Despite his involvement, he is still critical of what happened because what is vastly reported as a win for his people isn’t the end of the struggle.
“Getting rid of Park is fabulous,” Hur said, “but we’re looking at nine years of rot that has set in our institutions and liberal democracy. This is only the first step.”
This is the tension that exists between the idea of protest and the reality of protest. In much of our conversations surrounding protests in the U.S., the focus is on the end result of a specific protest. Right now, the desired result is that we would rather not have Donald Trump as president, and we’re making our voices heard. However, there is little discussion of what would happen afterward.
Focus Is the Most Important Part of Protest
In 2015, students in South Africa began protesting against a rate hike in tuition that in turn became a movement for free college tuition for everyone. The movement itself changed directions to encompass the needs of a greater population and therefore gain more support and steam. Although their protest didn’t result in the sure “win” that the recent South Korean protests did, the government was moved to consider the idea of free tuition for everyone and commit to at least covering people from low-income families.
The end result of that protest was not as spectacular as an impeachment and is in fact still ongoing, but the continued support of a larger group of people helped them push their cause forward. This is something that Americans are not great at.
“Americans are not a very protest-oriented people,” Hur says. “You do not have the tradition we have. Sure, you have the Civil Rights movement and some examples of unrest here and there—more recently the Occupy phenomenon—but Americans in general do not like to get off their butts en masse.”
Hur’s assessment is not quite correct. It’s not that we don’t like to get off our butts. It’s that as a people, we are staunchly divided, even within parties and ideologies.
We tend to be Team Red and Blue when it comes to the actions of sitting politicians, even though their policies affect us all. Although we may not have voted for the people who are in office, we are still their constituents. We are still the people they want voting for them every other year or so.
Although politicians we disagree with may be speaking to their own bases, if we work together to get those bases to understand how joining our protests will help them, we all have a better chance of turning the tide and getting politicians to really pay attention to and listen to us.
We’re not going to be able to pull people from the very far Right to center, but the thousands of people who are more center Right or one issue voters can be persuaded to protest on issues that impact them. Changing our language to be less ideological and more pragmatic will help our protests become stronger and more powerful.
There’s a System in Place
Our government is a multi-tiered system, and we as a people can affect change at every level of it. We have systems built in to keep our elected officials from running all over our rights. Protests are really great at drawing attention to the fact that this is happening, but enacting change in our country may require a variety of other methods.
This isn’t to say that we should not protest—we absolutely should! Protesting, marching, and speaking out against injustice are key ways to draw attention and raise awareness. For example, protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement eventually led to the Department of Justice investigating multiple police departments around the country, which uncovered race-based policing tactics that targeted people of color, mostly Black people.
When asked about how we can combat authority in our country, Hur, though not an American, said, “I can tell you that it’s the duty of every democratic citizen to find out what these methods are and exploit them. Democracy is not about submission to the rule of majority, unlike what trolls on the Internet claim. That’s just fascism.”
In the United States, we are pretty hands off with our politics for the most part. It’s only every four years when we as a nation really get invested in our elected officials. Not everyone is political, and that’s fine. But chances are, if you’re reading this article, you are someone who cares about the policies our elected officials put forth and want to make sure they are best representing the people they are supposed to serve. To that end, get involved with your local political groups if you can.
This means keeping abreast of local decisions and attending meetings. Help plan and shape local strategies that include protests and actions that target your elected officials. This is a big country, and spreading protests across state lines allows dedicated groups to focus their efforts on one politician at a time. If this is done throughout the country, then every politician will be pushed to really listen the voices of the people.
This is a particularly good option for people who cannot, for whatever reasons, march in protests. This also gives power to the people on a local, grassroots level.
South Koreans Didn’t Win, and That’s Important
The biggest lesson we can learn from what happened in South Korea isn’t that they protested peacefully and the country impeached the president. As Hur pointed out to me, this only happened after years of conservative rule and many scandals in which people lost their lives. This isn’t even the first time that they’ve protested and had a president impeached.
The lesson we can learn from South Korea is that we need to take steps to ensure that the end results of our protests and our push for change carries us into a future where we are not faced with another Trump. We can’t lose sight of the fact that there is a time beyond Trump and a system that is meant to work for the people, not against us.
We need to familiarize ourselves with that system and find the ways to make it work for us. Even if Trump is in office. Even if he gets impeached and we have four years of Mike Pence instead. Protesting is great, but we must make sure that there are more weapons in our arsenal than just our voices.
We think that our politicians’ goal is to serve the people of the America, but it’s not. That’s in the job description, sure, but that’s not really their aim. Our elected officials’ focus is on getting reelected, and they will do whatever they can to achieve that goal.
This means that part of our protests needs to capture and target our politicians’ electability. For many of us, that means appealing to our government on a smaller, more local level. It includes letter writing, phone calls, and attention paid to the movements of state governments because the people that we put in power there are the people who end up at the big show in Washington.
“There are things you can do to make a difference,” Hur said, “and believe me, America is depending on you.”