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South Korea's Candlelight Protest

Can people power trump powerful forces, even when the odds are seemingly impossible?

When a 6,800-tonne ferry capsized off the south-west coast of South Korea in April 2014, killing more than 300 people, including many students on a high school trip, it triggered not only national grief, but a wave of protest and introspection.

The Sewol ferry disaster is often cited as the catalyst for protests that became the Candlelight Revolution, which drove the impeachment in 2017 of President Park Geun-hye.

Simon Ville, a Senior Professor of Economic and Business History, with the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, says the disaster and ensuing Candlelight Revolution are case studies in social innovation that have lessons for South Korea and here in Australia.

If we're going to progress in the future it's not going to be by a few dominant people or dominant firms telling the rest of society what to do because they know best and they have the power.

Professor Simon Ville

Social innovation, typically linked with creation of new enterprises, may seem a counterintuitive approach to understanding immense tragedy, but as Professor Ville points out, a social innovation is often based on new ideas that improve the quality of life.

In that context, a society looking for new ideas in the wake of great pain, which lead to a groundswell of action against the government, fits the broader definition of a social innovation.

Professor Ville first visited South Korea in 2016, speaking at a conference in the coastal city of Mokpo about social innovation and what it means to be a maritime nation at the time they were grappling to understand the disaster and its impact on the national psyche.

An outpouring of grief

“When I was in Mokpo in 2016 they were very much recovering from, and trying to understand, this terrible loss of life and death,” Professor Ville recalls. “This was a reflection on their top-down autocracy, the values of listening and doing what other people say.

“One of the reasons that so many kids perished in that ferry was because their crew or their teachers told them to stay put rather than get off as quickly as you can, so in the Korean tradition they did what they were told.

“All that came out of the disaster just filled the discussion in Mokpo: ‘how did we let that happen? Why was it so badly organised?’ Difficult questions for Koreans who don’t like to be thought of as disorganised.

“I remember that during the conference that whole issue was raised several times as a reflection of problems of Korea’s past and things that they wanted to get away from. It goes beyond not only what happened on board at the time but the way the government reacted.

“The strong popular feeling was that President Park’s government didn’t do enough to find out what went wrong and why.”

These people are ... mainstream, middle class articulate people speaking out and saying, 'we need a different type of economy. We need social change'.

Professor Simon Ville

Professor Ville recalls a striking visual symbol of the grief outside the presidential palace in Seoul, where families of the victims of the ferry disaster had erected yellow tents as part of a vigil to hold the government accountable for its failings.

“That to me captured a social movement in many ways. The government had made no attempt even under President Park to stop them doing this so they just arrived and they put up these tents.”

When allegations of massive business-political corruption around President Park later emerged, the South Korean public had had enough and the Candlelight Revolution was sparked.

“The government never told us everything, and is more interested in covering it up than in learning the lessons to make the country safer for children,” Oh Byung-hwan told the New York Times in 2016. He was one of many parents of children who died in the tragedy who kept a vigil at a site overlooking the recovery operation.

“We are here to monitor and record every move of the salvage operation, because we have learned not to trust what the government says, what it does.”

Professor Simon Ville. Photo: Paul Jones

A protest of a different kind

Professor Ville said the Candlelight Revolution was seen as an historic turning point for a nation with a very complex modern history, and academics from around the world were invited in late 2017 to help the South Koreans gain a closer understanding of how a popular protest led to President Park’s impeachment and what lies ahead for the nation.

Rather than a left- or right-leaning political movement, the Candlelight Revolution was firmly grounded in the educated middle class.

“These people are voting on one hand as senior employees of a company, they’re voting as investors to superannuation funds,” Professor Ville said. “And they’re also out there on the streets protesting.

“That’s where the social element becomes strong, these sorts of people are not just left, green supporters, they’re mainstream, middle class articulate people speaking out and saying, ‘we need a different type of economy. We need social change’.

“If you like, it’s the politest form of protest you could possibly imagine. They have always made a big deal of the fact there was no violence. It was simply people walking along with candles, there was nothing aggressive nor violent. That is a very Korean way of doing things.”

Professor Ville said time will show if the movement will have a lasting impact on the political and social environment in South Korea. While raw emotion can drive enthusiasm and impel people to take to the streets, idealism can fade and long-term transformation can be a mirage.

“I think there will be some change, evolutionary change. In a sense they need to distinguish between the short-term sudden change, which was getting rid of President Park, from the underlying issue of how she was allowed to behave corruptly.

“The fact of interrelations with companies like Hyundai reflects underlying problems that are not going to be solved overnight, but recognising those problems is a form of progress.

“Based upon the shipping loss and on the presidential corruption, maybe that will trigger a Korea that’s less autocratic, less deferential and draws deeply on the groundswell of opinion.”

South Korea's Candlelight Protest

Seoul, South Korea, 12 November, 2016: Hundreds of thousands of people gathered at a rally to demand the ouster of President Park Geun-hye.

Lessons for all

While the South Korean example of social change is dramatic for its genesis in tragedy and its outcome in President Park’s impeachment, Professor Ville believes there are lessons for all social movements.

Does a person need to take to the street or can consumer power be tapped, particularly via the mobilising effects of social media, to create change?

Connection through social media helped drive so many people out on the streets protesting in South Korea. Professor Ville says similar insights can be drawn from online petitions here, such as the movement led by media personality Peter FitzSimons opposing the NSW State Government’s proposal to spend $2.5 billion rebuilding two major Sydney sports stadia.

“This is a choice between a large elite stadium supported by big business, and impacting on the local community, against alternative dispersed expenditures to support local sporting facilities and social services for a broader population.

“We have a generation here of people coming out of university who have a very different attitude to power and are much more interested in running small-scale businesses that have a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility.

“I think there is a stronger sense of egalitarianism now. You go back to the same-sex marriage debate and our attitudes to Indigenous society and there’s a growing recognition that we as a society need to be fairer and more inclusive.

“If we’re going to progress in the future it’s not going to be by a few dominant people or dominant firms telling the rest of society what to do because they know best and they have the power.

“If we want to make the best of what we’ve got, we need to call on as many people as possible – because those from Indigenous homes and disadvantaged areas are potentially as important contributors to our society and economy as those of privileged backgrounds.”

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