Americans Can Learn From Korean “Plaza Democracy”

Photo by Jjw | CC BY 2.0

“Broadly speaking, the candlelight protest movement had two goals. The first goal was to restore social justice by punishing wrong-doers under the previous Park and Lee administrations. The second goal was to implement equitable policies and measures that could ensure a level playing field for the haves and the have-nots.”

— Mi Park, South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution: The Power of Plaza Democracy (2018)

Understanding how Koreans have achieved some of their goals through their Candlelight Revolution may help us all find a way to cope with the rise of nationalism, racism, and tribalism; militarism; sexism; violations of our right to freedom of expression; and the power gap between often unified corporate and government power on the one hand, and usually weak people power on the other—in short, the subjugation of democracy to the global resurgence of fascism. Fortunately, even in this period of danger and darkness, there are those who are willing do the work of laying the foundations for genuine democracy. No better example can be found than the 2016/17 Candlelight Revolution of South Korea, which showed unequivocally that genuine democratic action can lead to peaceful revolution in the real world.

The use of candlelight to oppose government policy goes back to the Yangju Highway Incident of 13 June 2002, when two 14-year-old girls, Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun, were run over and killed by a 57-ton, US Army, bridge-launching, armored vehicle on a road in Yangju, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. They had been walking to a friend’s birthday party. The South Korean government sought jurisdiction in the case, but Washington refused. The driver, Sergeant Mark Walker, was tried in a US military court and the court delivered a “not guilty” verdict. The Justice Ministry of South Korea was dissatisfied; the people were outraged. Thousands of citizens of Seoul poured into the streets demanding justice with candles in their hands.

As for what is now called the Candlelight “Revolution,” 17 million people participated in massive street protests over the course of many months in 2016 and 2017, especially from late 2016 to March 2017. They came out every Saturday night, rain or shine, throughout the long, cold winter. Their protests culminated in the peaceful and democratic impeachment and arrest of Ms. Park Geun-hye, who was then president. That amounts to one out of every four men, women, and children in the country. The number of protestors nationwide actually reached a peak of 2.32 million people on 3 December 2016. 

Who is Park Geun-hye and Why Was She So Unpopular?

Ms. Park is the daughter of the former US-backed military dictator Park Chung-hee, who was president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979. He received his initial military training in an officer’s school in Japan, and got his first break while working for the Kwantung Army in Manchuria. The Kwantung Army, commanded at one time by the general and A-class war criminal Hideki Tojo, was “prestigious” in Japan for its building the colony of Manchukuo, but surely notorious in Korea. A noted example of Park Chung-hee’s dedication to the Empire of Japan was the fact that he was very proud of the gold watch that he had once received from Emperor Hirohito. This is written in a biography of him paid for by his supporters.

After Japan’s defeat, Park Chung-hee received further training in the Korean Military Academy under the US occupation. Such is the distinctive resume that qualified him for the post of president of South Korea for 15 years. His connections with VIPs of Japan, such as the Class-A war criminal Kishi Nobusuke and the dirty-money Sasakawa Ryoichi (1899-1995), also served him well. This helped him pull in investment money from Japan for the chaebols (i.e., South Korean-style industrial conglomerates). He made deals with the US, too, sending hundreds of thousands of Korean boys for one-year stints in hell, helping the US to divide the world in two through the Vietnam War. Korean troop levels there reached as many as 50,000 at one time, second only to the US. 15,000 Koreans lost their lives fighting in Vietnam.

Needless to say, Ms. Park’s family legacy and its unfair connections to the chaebols have not made her popular, especially among young South Koreans. They suffer from extremely high levels of unemployment. People also resented the class injustice represented by her giving special favors to chaebol elites. The unfair distribution of wealth in Korea is a problem that goes back to the late nineteenth century and beyond.

By walking in the footsteps of her father, Ms. Park helped herself to public funds, and shared those funds with her friend Ms. Choi Soon-sil. Ms. Park used her connections with chaebolto coerce companies to make donations equivalent to tens of millions of US dollars to non-profit organizations that she and Ms. Choi controlled. This amounted to money-laundering. In exchange, she helped those chaebolto further their interests. The companies that were manipulated by Ms. Park include Samsung (who alone gave $36 million to Ms. Park and Ms. Choi directly and indirectly), LG, Hyundai Motor, and Korea Telecom. Samsung paid for Ms. Choi’s daughter’s equestrian training in Europe.

Ms. Park’s crimes may appear relatively mild to some. Japan’s Prime Minister has been embroiled in some similar scandals recently resulting in significant numbers of Japanese taking to the streets to demand that he step down, e.g., the Moritomo Gakuen Scandal of 2017. Conservatives and ultranationalists were starting a private elementary school in Osaka where children had to recite daily the “Imperial Rescript on Education,” a method of indoctrination practiced in schools before and during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Pacific War (1941-45). The Rescript had taught children that there was an eternal bond between Japan’s benevolent rulers and its obedient subjects, and that they must “guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.” This represented a return of emperor-centered family state ideology. But this ultranationalist dream lost steam when it was revealed that the government land purchased for the school had been heavily discounted in a shady deal involving Prime Minister Abe’s wife and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.

Unlike the Japanese public, the South Korean public could not live with the corruption of their government. They took to the streets in their Candlelight Revolution, and as a result, Ms. Park now sits in prison. In May 2017 Mr. Moon Jae-in was elected as the new president. President Moon is from the main opposition party, aptly named the “Democratic Party,” unlike the “Democratic Party” of the United States. A former human rights lawyer, he promised to continue the Candlelight Revolution and “restore justice and democracy in Korea,” in the words of political scientist Mi Park, the author of South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution: The Power of Plaza Democracy. She calls South Korea’s democracy a “plaza democracy.” For her, this term emphasizes that the “country’s governance system and its national political agenda have been, at numerous times, shaped by citizens’ mass protest rallies held at public places.”

We learn from Mi Park that two of the issues that many Candlelight protestors were especially angry about, that brought them onto the streets, involved attempts by Park Geun-hye to re-write history:  In one attempt, she made a deal with Shinzo Abe to help him silence Korean women who were victims of the Empire of Japan’s military sex trafficking (i.e., the “comfort women” stations). In the other, she attempted to force schools throughout South Korea to use government-issued history textbooks that whitewashed the wrongs of previous military dictatorships, including those of her father.

In her arrogant and authoritarian style, Park Geun-hye forced on Koreans the agreement on the “comfort women” that she signed with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of the country that had formerly colonized Korea, on 28 December 2015. South Koreans would receive another flimsy apology from Tokyo and $8.3 million for the remaining survivors. In return, South Korea had to promise that in the future it would not make any demands for further compensation. This generated tremendous anger and for many, hurt their national pride. (See Jonson N. Porteux, “Reactive Nationalism and its Effect on South Korea’s Public Policy and Foreign Affairs,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 1 May 2016. Typical of Washington, the national security advisor Susan Rice called it an “important gesture of healing and reconciliation” even when the deal did not include participation from the surviving “comfort women” themselves.

Both of these historical issues that South Koreans felt were especially egregious involved Park Geun-hye covering up the crimes of elite families like her own. In the case of the history textbooks, they taught that (US-backed) authoritarians like her father had done much good and little harm to ordinary South Koreans. In the case of the deal with Shinzo Abe, she was colluding with him to protect the reputations of elite families who had been beneficiaries of Japanese colonialism in Korea, such as the Abe’s family, that of his right-hand man, Aso Taro, and even that of Park Geun-hye’s own family. Both of these whitewashings of history were “unpopular among young students and the educated middle-class in general,” in Mi Park’s words.

The Genealogy of Japanese Ultranationalists

Park Geun-hye’s father, like Kim Il-sung (1912-94, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather), came of age in Manchuria “in the midst of depression, war, and mind-spinning change. In this radicalized milieu he had witnessed a group of young military officers organize politics, and a group of young Japanese technocrats quickly build many industries.” One of those builders of industries was Kishi Nobusuke. People like Kishi Nobusuke, Hideki Tojo whom Kishi worked closely with, and Park Geun-hye’s father were fighting for the Empire of Japan, whose agents in Manchuria were trying to hunt down Kim Il-sung, one of the Korean guerrilla warriors fighting in the resistance against the Empire. (Think La Résistance of France).

Japanese colonizers considered Kim Il-sung “one of the most effective and dangerous guerrillas. They formed a special counterinsurgency unit to track him down, and put Koreans in it as part of their divide-and-rule tactics,” but according to two Japanese Kwantung Army colonels, Kim was “particularly popular among the Koreans in Manchuria,” and many Koreans there “gave him, secretly, both spiritual and material support.” There were two million mostly impoverished Koreans in Manchuria towards the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and according to US intelligence, 95% of them were against the Japanese Empire. Many Koreans in Manchuria resisted Japanese colonialism at every opportunity.

As a Korean, Park Geun-hye’s father would have been far lower on the totem pole in Japan’s colony in Manchuria (“Manchukuo,” 1932-45) than Kishi Nobusuke, but he must have served the Empire well if he was given a gold watch from the Emperor of Japan.

In Japan, the current Prime Minister as well as the current Deputy Prime Minister are both related to Kishi Nobusuke. Abe is the grandson of Kishi while Aso is related by marriage to Kishi. Aso is also related to Japan’s imperial family. He inherited a mining fortune that was built up in part by exploiting Korean forced laborers during the war. His family’s company had a reputation for “brutality and terrible working conditions,” according to the American historian of Korea Bruce Cumings. He points out that “if the DPRK features hereditary communism, postwar Japan is hereditary democracy—often 70 to 80 percent of their parliamentarians have inherited seats from their fathers or come from politically prominent families. When a person like Abe or Aso comes to power in Japan, Pyongyang remembers what others don’t know or forgot: their genealogy.” One is tempted to call the enmity between Tokyo and Pyongyang (North Korea) a “family feud.” There is deep, “family honor”-type, personal roots behind that enmity, going back to the 1930s.

Abe is one of the most prominent and powerful Japanese politicians who deny the sex slave crimes of the Empire of Japan (1868-1947). In 2007, he chose a date heavy with meaning in Korea, the 1st of March, to announce that there was “no evidence” that women had been “forcibly” used as sex slaves. That day is the anniversary of the Korean independence movement, referred to as the “March 1st Movement” since it started on 1 March 1919. A few weeks later, he apologized with these words: “I express my sympathy toward the comfort women and apologize for the situation they found themselves in.” (Cumings’ italics). Cumings hints at a similarity between Abe and the soldiers who availed themselves of the services of “comfort stations.” Korean sex slaves said that soldiers would “clean up, button up, and then offer awkward apologies to them on the way out the door.”

There is nothing surprising about the fact that millions of Koreans were outraged when Ms. Park Geun-hye shook hands with this man—perhaps the most prominent “comfort women” history denialist and the elite grandson of a colonizer—and accepted money from him in exchange for her promise to silence Korean women who bravely told their stories about sex-trafficked women being trapped, raped, murdered, and wronged in other horrible ways by citizens of the Empire of Japan. Ms. Park Geun-hye’s acceptance of Abe’s fake apology and Japanese taxpayers’ money was a true insult to the noble Korean women who dared demand justice, knowing full-well that their demand for justice would only increase their own suffering.South Korea is one country where the history of Japanese and American state violence in Northeast Asia will not be forgotten.

As we reflect on the history of the violence that our country unleashed on Koreans, let us remember the words of Howard Zinn in The Bomb (City Lights, 2010):

It was a climate of unquestioned moral righteousness. The enemy was Fascism… No literary work of imagination could create a more monstrous evil. There was, indeed, no reason to question that the enemy in World War II was monstrous and had to be stopped before it enveloped more victims. But it is precisely that situation—where the enemy is undebatably evil—that produces a righteousness dangerous not only to the enemy but to ourselves, to countless innocent bystanders, and to future generations. We could judge the enemy with some clarity. But not ourselves. If we did, we might have noted some facts clouding the simple judgment that since they were unquestionably evil, we were unquestionably good.

Zinn wrote those words about World War II. Unlike that War, the Korean War was fought against people that American government and military officials usually labeled “communists.” Many of them were called members of “people’s committees” in Korea at the time. The CIA called them “Left Wing People’s Committees,” and said that in Korea there was a “grassroots independence movement which found expression in the establishment of the People’s Committees throughout Korea in August 1945.” The Right Wing of Korea, on the other hand, represented a “numerically small class” that “virtually monopolizes the native wealth and education of the country.”

The members of Korean grassroots People’s Committees demanding democracy and independence became the new evil enemy, replacing the Fascist enemies of World War II. They, too, became “unquestionably evil” in the eyes of Americans and people of other UN Command States such as Australia and the UK, whose soldiers fought for the US-backed dictator Syngman Rhee. The North Korean regime did eventually descend into a kind of Stalinism, but what was evil about millions of Koreans yearning for independence (i.e., their right to self-determination) and a fairer distribution of the wealth? What were we doing in Korea anyway? To answer those questions, it is high time, after seven decades of the US causing suffering to Koreans North, South, and in other countries, for Americans to study a little about our history, especially the history of our violence in Northeast Asia, and evaluate to what extent “we” were good and “they” were evil.


With the rise of the Candlelight Revolution and the Democratic Party’s Moon Jae-in, what we are witnessing is not just the unfolding of peace on the Korean Peninsula but democracy in various senses of the word: political representation, industrial democracy, and redistribution of wealth. If any developed country with a market economy today has a citizenry that is winning in the struggle to gain leverage over governments and corporations, that country is South Korea. Sadly, in that relatively wealthy and democratic country, there still remain absolutely unfair material deprivation and disadvantages among the working class, just as in the US. President Moon Jae-in is now grappling with that inequality, in addition to getting Americans and North Koreans to sit down and talk.

After the 12 June North Korea-US Summit, South Korean Candlelight protestors deserve a round of applause. That much is clear.  We in the US and other countries should praise them, thank them, and for our own sake, start learning from them. All polls of South Korean public opinion show that almost all of them are seeking peace on the Peninsula, just as they have been for years and decades, and that President Moon Jae-in’s diplomacy have made him wildly popular. What this amounts to is this:  Koreans are inviting us all to hop on the “peace train.” This is a train that, if it reaches its destination, will benefit Americans, too, by making the US more secure and by creating a peace dividend for us as less money will need to be spent on troops and weapons in Northeast Asia.

Since violence is a tool of the strong, not the weak, we can be rest-assured that North Koreans want peace even more than Americans do. If Trump follows through with his promises, makes a good faith effort to build peace, and signs a peace treaty with Kim Jong-un, then we may be able to bring an end to several decades of gross human rights violations of North Koreans—those caused by Washington, Pyongyang, Moscow, the UN, and the UN Command States. No longer will Pyongyang feel the need to funnel their limited resources into preparing for war with the United States. Prosperity spurred on by Moon’s “New Northern Policy”, essentially the same as what has been referred to as the “Moon-Putin Plan” could help pave the way toward a flowering of peace in Korea and beyond.

Sadly, judging from the irrational about-face Trump made on 22 June regarding what he called “an unusual and extraordinary threat” from North Korea and his decision to continue to cause the deaths of innocent people by retaining the barbaric sanctions regime for another year, that embattled country is still at the mercy of the likes of the pathologically war-loving John Bolton and his ilk in Washington.

Clearly the time has come for the whole world to follow in the footsteps of South Koreans, take to the streets, and hold a non-violent “Candlelight Revolution” for peace. South Korea has proven to be both a metaphorical and a literal beacon of light for the rest of the world.


Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Norton, 1998).

Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History(Modern Library, 2010)

Mi Park, South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution: The Power of Plaza Democracy(Coal Harbour, February 2018).

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan.