Candlelight in South Korea
This is an update about the anti-US protests in South Korea in relation to revising SOFA, the agreement governing the status of the US forces in Korea.
In South Korea, candlelight vigils and protests are growing in intensity across the country, remembering the two young girls crushed to death by an American military vehicle last June, and demanding a more equal relationship between the two countries. Voluntary candlelight protests, initially proposed on the net by a young citizen, have continued in front of the US Embassy in Seoul, every evening with ever more participants.
On 14 December, the anti-US rally in Seoul gathered some one hundred thousand protesters. Everyone was with a candle, calling for ‘Bush’s public apology’ and ‘Revision of SOFA’. Some others were keen on opposing the coming invasion of Iraq. They went on with a peaceful march towards the US Embassy despite a heavy police blockade and the wintry chill. A dramatic march and vigil was held for the first time in South Korea’s history in front of the heavily guarded embassy. The protesters were deeply moved in that forbidden space, and named this massive rally as the “Sovereignty Reclaim Day”. Downtown Seoul was reverberated with their deafening outcry of “Regain Our National Sovereignty”.
This day was also marked by the presence of ‘Asian solidarity for peace’. A few months ago a wide, regional alliance of peace groups in Asia came about in the name of the Asian Peace Alliance. On behalf of this alliance, Walden Bello from the Philippines (Executive director, Global South on the Focus) and Kuwae Teruko from Japan (Secretary General, Okinawa Women Act against Military Violence) conveyed the Alliance’s support for the revision of SOFA and urged all Asians to unite against the dangerous moves of Washington threatening peace in the region. Their messages were greeted with heated applause during the rally.
The governments in Seoul and Washington have not yet come to terms on how to reflect this public demand into a shape. When Mr. Armitage, deputy secretary of state of the US, visited Seoul on 10 December, the two sides could only agree on reforming administrative aspects of SOFA, not its legal code. The issue of criminal jurisdiction over the crimes involving American servicemen, a keynote in the public outrage, was not even mentioned. So far pledges for administrative reform have failed to appease the deeply skeptical Korean public.
And, contrary to most Korean and some international media reports, Bush has not yet made a proper official apology on this case. The Korean government claims that Bush has conveyed his “deep sadness and regret” over the case to Kim Dae-Jung via a phone conversation on 11 December. However, this falls short of the ‘direct and public apology’ called for by the public. Moreover, there was no discussion or even mentioning in the phone conversation of bringing the responsible officers to justice, revision of SOFA, and rethinking the current unequal relationship of the two countries.
Public anger and protests will continue unless the two governments come up with substantial remedies to the current structural injustice and unless Bush comes with a public apology to the Korean people. Nationwide protests will be launched again on 21, 24, 28 and 31 December in cities and towns. The last day of this year will mark the peak of the public demand for justice.
The presidential election of 19 December was held in the middle of this wave of rage towards the US. It expressed a choice of time towards Roh Moo-hyun, the candidate who vowed to continue on peaceful approach to North Korea and reforming the relationship with the US. His campaign pledges included foreign policies based on sovereign decisions. He also promised to reform the “unequal relationship between South Korea and the US”. There is a very strong expectation that Roh will provide the leadership towards revising SOFA. Civil society groups in Korea with all its dynamic energy will watch and press the government to keep its promises.
The election of Roh is an important testimony of change in South Korea. It signifies a surge of public desire for doing away with Cold-War politics and working towards peace; this surge overwhelming the traditional pro-US conservative politics. It is a verdict of a democratic jury on the future path of international relations that South Korea should choose. We need to remember that this month’s US military assault on a North Korean ship and North Korea’s restarting of a nuclear reactor did not stop voters from casting their votes against the hawkish candidate who vowed to pursue Bush’s thinking.
As it was only until a few years ago that North Korean threat stories served the best means of quelling democratic energy in South Korea, the change we see this year is indeed a sea change.
How did it happen? What happened really? First of all, we need to appreciate the accumulated effects of the democratization process since the retreat of the military regimes, hosting the rise of young generations who are free of the Cold War mentality, but eager for ‘coming out’ to society. With the rapid expansion of the internet media, young people succeeded in shaping themselves into a social voice: this is the rise of a new ‘opinion leading’ group free from the institutional media. The continuation of the so-called Sunshine policy by Kim’s government has rationalized North Korean issues, reducing the false perception of threat. The growing support for the new progressive party, the Democratic Labour Party, has made the election culture to become more focused on policy differences, diffusing old McCarthist tactics.
The defeated conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang has labeled Roh’s line of engagement with North as destabilizing and dangerous, and supported Bush’s approach to North. However, the outcome of the election showed that this had turned against him: voters were more inclined to see hawks causing the danger, not doves.
Lee’s defeat tells more stories than an election defeat. It is a defeat of a political project relying on Cold War style confrontation, aligning with global superpower and domestic corporate super powers (chaebols), and supported by a parliamentary majority and institutional media giants. This was a defeat in a country known as the most loyal ally of Washington. This was partly a vote on Bush as well. What can be more deeply shaking than this in the region?
Who defeated this giant alliance? Of all dwarfs who did the job, we need to pay attention to the rise of invisible voices and minds that will not be easily dictated to. All in all, the sea change in South Korea implies a failure of Bush’s visionless approach in the region – that it failed to win the hearts of the people of its ally. It implies an outright rejection by democracy, therefore a moral failure of a foreign policy employed by Washington today. Lack of vision undermined its own ally. It may become a beginning of a larger failure.
People in South Korea are not just expressing their sentiment. They will watch closely how Roh engages with the US and North Korea, and if he leads Korea’s relation with the US in the manner demanded by social change in South Korea. They will watch him from the moral high ground – we want peace not war. And they will act. Moral command will oblige them to act with determination, if belligerent forces and war games are not contained in time.
We take the current protests very seriously and believe they are an integral part of global anti-war peace efforts. We are protesting in front of the US Embassy in order to contribute to peace in the region and to oppose hegemonic wars and war threats globally.
Everyone who sent us support messages and encouragement in response to our previous appeal (Dec 6. South Korea is Burning), thank you so much. Your voices were widely passed around through speeches and internet posting, and very much appreciated. Please continue to support us and spread our messages.
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