For several months, the Hong Kong protests have been one of the biggest issues across Asia. The protests were initially triggered by a so-called extradition bill. Even after Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to shelve the bill, Hongkongers have continued staging protests across the city, calling for Lam’s resignation. The protests have worsened, with no end in sight. The world is criticizing China and Hong Kong’s police. South Korea is no exception. Many Koreans support the protesters, as what is happening in Hong Kong reminds them of pro-democracy protests in their own country’s modern history.
For many years after the end of the Korean War, South Korea was ruled by strongmen. Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, governed the country for a long time by stuffing ballot boxes. In the 1960s, Park Chung-hee, a former general of the Japanese imperialist army and the late father of Park Geun-hye, took power in a coup, suppressing the public, and disbanding the parliament to entrench his power. After the assassination of Park, Chun Doo-hwan seized power in another coup, repressing the public and massacring citizens in Gwangju, a city in southwestern Korea. For seven years, Chun oppressed the country’s citizens, many of whom were brutally tortured by the police.
Whenever dictators have oppressed citizens, Koreans have resisted. They’ve organized pro-democracy protests, mainly led by students, to establish democracy, as well as ousting strongmen. In 1960, Koreans organized the April 19 Student Revolution because they wee outraged by Rhee’s election rigging, which led to his resignation; In 1979, Koreans staged Bu-Ma democratic protests, pro-democracy movements in the southern cities of Busan and Masan, criticizing Park for violating the constitution to justify his dictatorship; in the 1980s, citizens in Gwangju fought against Chun’s massacre.
Like the current protesters in Hong Kong, activists in Korea have been subjected to violence by the police, who have shamelessly pandered to dictators
Like the current protesters in Hong Kong, activists in Korea have been subjected to violence by the police, who have shamelessly pandered to dictators. The police rounded up protesters without warrants, brutally torturing them. The most notorious cases of torture were the tragic deaths of Park Jong-chul and Lee Han-yeol, university students who participated in pro-democracy movements that denounced Chun’s dictatorship in 1987. The police were responsible for their deaths: Park Jong-chul died as a result of brutal torture in January 1987; Lee Han-yeol died after being subjected to tear gas.
The news reports of the tragic deaths of those young men enraged Koreans, prompting them to organize the biggest protest the country had ever seen. Chun Doo-hwan, who had played down pro-democracy movements, resigned. Since then, South Korea has introduced a direct voting system, one of the important driving forces for democracy.
Even when faced with oppression, Koreans have succeeded in achieving democracy with a consistent pro-democracy movement, enduring police violence, sometimes even at the cost of their lives. The Hong Kong protesters are continuously fighting for full-fledged democracy, even when being beaten by the police. That’s one of the reasons why Koreans see the current protests in the territory as Hong Kong’s version of the pro-democracy movements in Korea. And that’s why Korean civic groups and Hong Kongers residing in Seoul have staged a demonstration, arguing that they are supporting protesters in Hong Kong. It may be a tough fight, but many Koreans hope Hong Kongers can achieve their goal of establishing a full-fledged democracy.