The peaceful behavior of the protesters that have gathered these past few Saturdays in Seoul to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye is a welcome departure from the usual anti-government demonstrations in the country.
Past protest usually degenerated into attacks on police by hardcore demonstrators whose passion for the cause made them feel justified in using violence, albeit nonlethal, for political ends.
But as most people want sensible debate, not metal pipes and water-cannon, the anti-Park demonstrations are a sign of supreme popular confidence. That explanation is well understood in Korea but may be rather difficult for expatriates and visitors to grasp.
Here, when popular emotion over an issue reaches a certain critical mass it morphs into a beast that is so powerful that it steps up and overwhelms decision-making on a grand scale.
We call the beast “public sentiment,” but neither this English translation nor the Korean words really convey what it is. That is because the more accurate naming — the people, the masses, the mob — implies something negative and fails to convey that the beast is viewed as morally good.
The beast has credentials. In 1987, it rose up and forced the Korean dictator of the day to do away with the American-style electoral college system (that he controlled) to allow his successor to be chosen by direct popular vote.
One night during the three weeks of protests at that time, I think I saw it take human form.
This apparition appeared one night at the entrance of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in the Myongdong district of Seoul, which was HQ for the democracy protesters.
A young man in jeans with a bandanna covering his mouth and nose like a cowboy was taunting the rows of riot police facing him across the lane. He was standing alone on a raised piece of ground in front of a wall protected only by the cathedral railings which were about waist-high.
To my amazement, the riot police leveled their rifles and started firing tear gas canisters directly at him. This was a clear and very dangerous violation of the rules of engagement.
Incredibly, he was not hit. As the canisters bounced off the railings in front of him and the wall behind him, enveloping him in a cloud of tear gas, he punched both fists into the air and screamed in fearless rage, “Change the Constitution!” Then, somehow, he was gone.
But the beast is more than just the father of democracy. In general, the idea of democracy is that voters get to elect representatives who rule over them for a limited period. In most countries, we expect our elected representatives to act out of conscience.
In Korea, though, there is a slightly different notion. It is that the people themselves rule. The election deal with presidents, for example, is that the people choose a person who gets to meet famous foreigners, turn up at places with muscular men with earpieces, and generally feel like she’s somebody. But she’s there to do the people’s bidding.
As Kim Dae-jung, an ex-president, used to say, “The people are God.”
The reason the beast has been awoken to fury now is because President Park has violated this holy arrangement. She put her friend in the people’s place and took orders from her.
This theology makes for powerful feelings, which is why Park will have to go.
According to a Seoul taxi driver — a member of an august body who I typically defer to for finger-on-the-pulse political analysis:
“Every single passenger I have spoken to thinks the president no longer deserves to be in the Blue House. She belongs in a mental hospital.”
But in this picture, something interesting is happening. The growing evidence, mostly in the form of information coming out of the prosecutor’s office, but also some investigative work by newspapers, is altering the original picture — which awoke the beast — of a docile Park taking orders from a manipulative Choi.
Now, the focus is on whether Park directed Choi and herself benefitted from Choi’s leveraging of her relationship with the center of power.
As this theme plays out, we should not expect the people to say, “Oh, we got it wrong. It’s just old-fashioned corruption. I’m going home.”
It’s too late for that.
Although the reasons the people were worked into a hysterical fury and started demanding that Park quit may have no basis in law, the crimes eventually unearthed will provide the basis in law to remove her.
Public sentiment will not be denied.