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The Candlelight Revolution in American Eyes

John Delury

John Delury attends a candlelight demonstration with his children this past winter. (John Delury)

By John Delury, professor at Yonsei University

I was sitting with my son in the airport lounge in San Francisco on our way back home to Seoul from a brief visit to my native California. He was humming a tune, as five-year-olds are wont to do. I knew the song instinctively, but it took me a moment to place it. I joined him, softly humming along as an irrepressible smile broke out over my face. He was singing Article I of the Korean Constitution, “The Republic of Korea shall be a democratic republic, all state authority shall emanate from the people…” The melody brought us back to a dozen Saturday nights, when our family joined the citizens of Seoul, taking sovereignty back from a president who had lost their faith.

Last autumn and winter, we sang in the cold and marched in the rain. We kept our candles alight and held signs aloft. We joined friends at City Hall, and made new friends as we strolled, everyone outraged and joyous at the same time, toward Gwanghwamun, from there on to the Blue House. Those Saturday nights, it was as if there were no strangers on the blocked off streets of in the heart of the capital. Solidarity erupted and flowed like lava—nothing could not stop it. The president in her labyrinth might cover her ears, but the city itself could hear the people sing. “Resign!,” they sang out. When she refused to listen, they turned to the Assembly-- “Impeach!,” they sang out. The people’s representatives heard the volonté générale, and consecrated in law what hundreds of thousands demanded from the streets.

For an American in Seoul, to witness the candlelight movement was a revelation. The proud product of old-fashioned American liberalism, I was taught in college to be wary of the people’s will, to fear Rousseau as opening the floodgates to Lenin and Stalin. I was educated with a deeper respect of constitutions than protests, and to think of the ideal government as an abstraction, a disembodied “rule of law.” These are good and noble principles—I still abide by them. But witnessing the candlelight revolution—the power of peaceful assembly, bonds of civic solidarity, and resolve of direct action—forced me to reconsider my mild disdain for the direct democracy of Rousseau. After all, America’s own political traditions are themselves a contradictory amalgam of liberal distrust of “the mob” combined with democratic embrace of self-government. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. The candlelight revolution improved upon Jefferson. In Seoul last year, the tree of liberty was refreshed by songs of freedom, and the people achieved self-government without shedding a single drop of blood.

It was not always easy to explain the nature of the movement to those outside of it. Some Americans mused, with an air of condescension toward a “young democracy” like South Korea’s, how they failed to see a legal or constitutional basis for impeachment. What did Park Geun-hye really do to deserve her fate? Hadn’t her predecessors in the Blue House been equally corrupt? Was it truly the allegations of collusion and the revelations of a shadow cabinet that brought a million people into the streets? Or was it in reality something else—the fact that she was a woman, for example? It is ironic to recall such conversations in light of the debate over impeachment now taking place in the U.S., where experts often note that the impeachment process is not really driven by considerations of law. It is a fundamentally political decision made by the U.S. House of Representatives based on their sense of the will of the people. Perhaps Americans could learn something from a “young democracy” about what it takes to manifest that will!

It is ironic too to observe the broader debate in the West over “populism,” and think about how the candlelight movement fits into it—or doesn’t. From Trump to Brexit to the surge in nativist parties across Europe, xenophobic populism has moved from the fringes of the Internet into the halls of power and influence. Immigrants are to blame for crime and depravity! Globalization is the reason for unemployment and inequality! Religious and racial Others are threats, to be banned, deported, silenced, mocked. The West is tottering on the edge of collapsing into a crater of its basest instincts—reactionary, isolationist, mercantilist, authoritarian. “Populism” is a pathology working its way through the politics of Europe and the United States.

Liberals and progressives in the West should look to Korea for a possible way out of their dilemma. The candlelight revolution was populism in the cause of equality, inclusivity and democracy. The candlelight movement denounced corruption in the name of civic solidarity, not strongman rule. The people took sovereignty away from a leader who lost public trust, but they strengthened and invigorated the institutions of democracy in the process. The Assembly voted with the people. The Court reviewed and upheld the decision. And a free, fair and fast election brought a new president to power. There was no disorder during the interregnum, no chaos amidst an extended constitutional crisis. Candlelight was populism at its best. South Korea stood as a beacon of liberal democratic inspiration in a world darkening under the clouds of reaction, the storms of resentment, and an eclipse of hope.

In her magisterial study On Revolution, the philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that the key to a successful revolution came not in the moment of liberation, but in the work of building a better moral order and political community in its wake. President Moon Jae-in seems to recognize this as well, knowing that his mandate derives from the candlelight movement and that his leadership will be judged on his capacity to govern in its spirit. The civic energy unleashed in the outrage of last winter is, paradoxically, momentum for progress. As the West struggles with reactionary politics of the far right and Alt-right, South Korea’s commitment to liberal principles and progressive solutions takes on a global significance as a model of good government and democracy revitalized.

There is also a great challenge facing South Korea—the oldest challenge, in fact, so familiar that it is easily forgotten. The Korean Peninsula has entered a new phase of instability and danger, fed by missile tests in Pyongyang and incendiary tweets in Washington. The spirit of democracy on display during the candlelight movement was possible only under conditions of peace. As Koreans know from their recent history, the northern wind can extinguish the flame of liberty—and the prospect of war puts in jeopardy not just freedom, but life itself. “Military options” in Korea were barely discussed a year ago in the United States, but now they are the talk of Washington. Perhaps, just as the tragedy of corruption sparked a renaissance in civic life, so in the year to come the horrific possibility of war might ignite a new movement toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. Revolutions do not really end—they open up a new phase in the endless fight for a just society and a peaceful world. Looking back a year later, Koreans have much to be proud of. They gave the world a lesson in democracy. Now may be the time to give the world another lesson, in how to fight for peace.

The Korean version of this article, translated by Kim Jinho, senior staff writer at the Kyunghyang Shinmun, was published in the Oct. 30 issue of that daily on page six.

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