Spirit of candlelight revolution continues as Moon Jae-in takes power

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the unprecedented wave of citizen action that ousted President Park Geun-Hye has ushered in a new era for South Korea. The "Candlelight Revolution", which started in October 2016, illustrated the power of peaceful protest, as millions of South Koreans took to the streets in weekly gatherings to topple Park's corrupt government. On 9th May 2017, President Moon Jae-In, a human rights lawyer, was elected as the new president with his campaign that tapped into the country's hunger for reform. Many have welcomed Moon's inauguration, hoping that he will work to remove the draconian measures targeting critics implemented under Park's administration. 

Many civil society groups welcomed President Park's impeachment. And some groups have focused on keeping citizens engaged in South Korea's political transformation. One in particular, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) commented on the current climate in the country, declaring that:

"The Candle revolution has to continue because impeaching a President does not automatically make a nation and a society brand new. Thus, Action for resignation (Emergency People Action for the resignation of Park Geun-hye's government) keeps carrying out general candle movements whenever a critical issue comes out".

Civil society groups, such as PSPD, have vowed to continue invigorating the spirit of the Candlelight Revolution to improve the sociopolitical situation for South Koreans. 

Peaceful Assembly

As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, the prosecution and imprisonment of trade unionist Han Sang-gyun for organising a protest epitomises the Park regime's approach to persecuting dissidents. Han Sang-gyun, President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was sentenced to three years imprisonment on 4th July 2016. After filing a final appeal against his charges, on 31st June 2017 the Supreme Court in Seoul upheld the original conviction, dashing hopes of an early release. Many civil society groups have drawn attention to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which found that Han's detention was arbitrary as he was merely exercising his right to peaceful assembly and expression. A number of civic groups have called upon newly-elected President Moon to intervene and secure the activist's release. 

Despite the wave of transformational protests in Seoul, the authorities have continued to restrict protest rights outside the capital. Residents in Seongju and Gimchu have mobilised against the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system by the United States of America. In the context of heightened tensions between North Korea and the USA, the increased presence of weapons to intercept ballistic missiles has angered locals. 

Activists in the usually quiet town of Seongju have protested with signs, saying: 

"No THAAD, No War" 

and 

"Hey, U.S.! Are you friends or occupying troops?"

While many of the protests have been peaceful, on 26th April 2017 security forces clashed with protesters. The confrontation began when protesters attempted to block vehicles carrying the missiles from entering the deployment site. In anticipation of unrest, South Korean authorities stationed over 8,000 security personnel to ensure the missile system was installed. While the activists were initially successful in preventing the trucks from entering the site, they were soon forcibly removed by South Korean security forces, leading to a confrontation. At least ten people were injured in clashes, including several elderly protesters. 

Weekly protests organised by locals have taken place in Seongju since the weapons system was deployed. One local resident commented on the situation, stating: 

"THAAD turned our tranquil village upside down. I couldn't focus on my farming because I also have to come out to keep watch over the Americans".

Local residents have taken to blocking the road leading to the site and turning away any vehicle carrying US military personnel, fuel or equipment away. The civilian guard has been so effective that US forces have been forced to resort to using helicopters to airlift personnel onto the site. Local activists have vowed to continue protesting against the missile site. 

During President Moon's election campaign, he voiced his opposition to the deployment of US weapons in South Korea, leading many to question the viability of the new weapons sites. On the 7th June 2017, Moon's administration announced that plans for four additional THAAD sites had been put on hold to allow authorities to conduct an environmental impact assessment.