The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Koreans are showing the world how protests can work

Strong democracies outlive scandals.

Protesters shout slogans during a rally calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in Seoul on Dec. 7. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

An older Korean neighbor down the street from me here in Washington told me recently that when Americans ask her about the scandal engulfing South Korean President Park Geun-hye, she feels “so ashamed.”

In East Asia’s Confucian culture, where face and respect matter so much, it’s understandable that she would feel embarrassment. But it is not justified. The response of the Korean people in this crisis, though less-reported than the twists and turns of the bizarre affair, has been exemplary and something my neighbor ought to be proud of.

On Saturday, South Korea held its sixth national protest in as many weeks, with as many as 1.7 million people packing downtown Seoul, within sight of the Blue House, the presidential residence. Since October, protesters have gathered in democratic, peaceful and even joyous assembly, demanding the president’s ouster. Park is accused of letting a longtime friend with no official government role, Choi Soon-sil, see classified documents and improperly influence government actions. In turn, Choi has been charged with using her relationship with the president to shake down the nation’s biggest companies for donations to her companies, personally enriching her. South Korea’s National Assembly is scheduled to vote on Park’s impeachment Friday.

Mass protests in South Korea are nothing new. Nationalists protested the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula during the first half of the 20th century. Democracy advocates protested the dictatorial rule of Park Geun-hye’s father, Park Chung-hee, in the 1970s. Union workers protested from almost the moment South Korea became a democracy in 1987. Hundreds of thousands protested the American military presence after a U.S. Army vehicle hit and killed two young girls during training exercises in 2002.

There’s a key difference between those protests, which were unruly and even violent on both sides, and the current ones. There have been isolated scuffles, but the protests this time have been largely peaceful, save for one notable outlier. A Korean man, so distraught by Choi’s actions, drove a flatbed truck with an excavator to the office of government prosecutors, where he believed Choi was being questioned. He unloaded the excavator and proceeded to ram the prosecutors’ office with it, claiming he wanted to “help her die.” He was quickly subdued by police, and no one died.

This sort of measured government response to protest has not always been the case in Korea. Park Chung-hee arrested, tortured and killed political opponents and demonstrators. His dictator successor, Chun Doo-hwan, did the same, massacring some 600 democracy protesters in 1980. Even as recently as September, an elderly Korean man, protesting Park Geun-hye’s agricultural policies, died from injuries after being hit by a police water cannon.

But not this time. Police have formed thousand-strong blockades and snaking bus lines for crowd control. Surely the kid-glove treatment from police has something to do with Park’s 4 percent approval rating — and a remarkable 0 percent among those under 30. After all, what’s the point in cracking down on protesters when they represent the entire country’s opinion, even the opinion of some within the president’s party?

The police have largely backed off heavy-handed tactics, letting the people assemble.

And assemble they have.

These protests have had more in common with peace-ins and family festivals than political mobilizations. Stages have been erected where performers sing protest songs, but popular songs, too. Mothers and fathers bring their children; the little ones for the fun, the older ones to experience the historic moment. Protesters wear Park and Choi masks — not gas masks — and engage in street theater while displaying comedic signs. On Saturday, protesters were given permission by the government to march within 100 yards of the Blue House — the closest ever. It has been a moving sight to see hundreds of thousands of Koreans in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Plaza at nighttime, holding candles, surrounding the statues of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, Korea’s two greatest historical figures, as protesters write the next chapter in Korea’s political history.

And, just to top it off, when protesters disperse for the evening, they clean up after themselves, throwing away garage and even recycling.

We have seen similarly well-mannered revolutions elsewhere in Asia, such as the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, where residents protested Beijing’s intervention in local elections. Protesters cleaned the streets the mornings after clashes with police and sorted plastic bottles for recycling while wearing goggles to protect their eyes from pepper spray, media reported at the time.

Students protesting Japan’s security laws last year were polite and well-dressed, according to reports, and said they wanted to “behave well and take our rubbish home.”

A strong social compact exists in Korea and other East Asian countries, and citizens can hold one another accountable for unacceptable public behavior. When I arrived in Seoul in 2010, older Korean women were still admonishing young couples on the street for kissing in public. Seoul, which was known as a “smoker’s paradise,” was well ahead of America in creating smoke-free public spaces on sidewalks and at bus stops so smokers would not foul the commons for nonsmokers.

Strong democracies outlive presidential scandals. It happened in the United States during Watergate, and it’s happening in Korea now. Koreans are showing the world that mass public protests can be powerful and peaceful — even polite — and still be effective. It’s a lesson Americans could stand to remember, especially now.