SEOUL — Hwang Yun-joo couldn’t make it to the huge anti-government protest that rocked central Seoul in the middle of November because he had to work in his wood shop. So he did what he thought was the next best thing: He printed out some posters he found on Facebook and displayed them in his shop window.
“It’s too much! We can’t take it anymore!” one declared. “Dictator’s daughter,” read another, under a picture of President Park Geun-hye, whose father, Park Chung-hee, seized power in a military coup in 1961 and served as president for almost two decades. The word “daughter” was crossed out, suggesting that Park Geun-hye was not just the daughter of a dictator, but one in her own right.
Then, last weekend, a police vehicle pulled up, and at least five officers got out and started taking photos of Hwang’s shop and its posters, Hwang recounted in an interview this week. They came in and told him the posters included false information and libeled the president, he said.
“When an officer took off one of my posters, I got very angry, so I told them to leave,” said Hwang, 44. He said he put up the posters partly because he was angry about Park’s plan to replace the array of history textbooks for middle- and high-school students, written by independent scholars, with one authorized text, as was the practice during her father’s time.
Critics say that does not allow for multiple interpretations of South Korea’s recent past, and some allege it is an attempt to rewrite history, including the draconian period during which Park’s father brutally suppressed dissent while bringing about the astonishingly fast industrialization of South Korea.
“I’m frustrated with the immaturity of democracy in South Korea,” he said.
Hwang isn’t the only one. An estimated 15,000 people took to the streets of Seoul in frigid weather Saturday, the day Park returned from a European trip, to demonstrate against her government on a range of issues. The protest was peaceful, with demonstrators singing and dancing, in stark contrast to the massive rally on Nov. 14 at which 60,000 protested. Then, police pelted the crowds with pepper spray and water cannons. A 69-year-old farmer, hit by a water jet at close range, suffered a brain hemorrhage and is still hospitalized in critical condition.
For many South Koreans, the decision to move to a single “correct” history text was the last straw. It taps into residual anger over Park’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster last year, in which more than 300 people died, and dissatisfaction with the sluggish economy.
Then there are the proposed labor reforms, which would give employers more flexibility to fire workers, that have incensed South Korea’s notoriously militant unions, the driving force behind the protests.
Park has also called for sweeping new anti-terrorism laws, which she says are needed after an Indonesian citizen suspected of ties to terrorist groups was arrested in Seoul, but which opponents say are too vague. She further inflamed opponents by saying that terrorists could blend in with protesters because both sometimes wear masks, so masks should no longer be tolerated. “Isn’t that what the ISIS is doing these days, with their faces hidden like that?” she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
That comment led to many protesters turning out in masks Saturday — including clowns, chickens, Guy Fawkes and even a few likenesses of Park herself.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about freedom of speech, with journalists and a contrarian academic being charged with defamation.
In these various actions, many South Koreans see in the president echoes of her father.
“I don’t have positive views about President Park, because she is the daughter of a dictator,” said Kang Ji-won, a 24-year-old student, in Seoul on a recent day. “She doesn’t even try to communicate with the people. She ignores what citizens want and bulldozes through her agenda. It’s wrong.”
Lee Yoon-kyung, a 58-year-old homemaker, agreed. “Her biggest problems are looking down on democracy and ignoring communication.”
Indeed, Park is viewed by many as such a remote figure that she has been nicknamed “Marie Antoinette” on social media — a name that, with a few tweaks, translates to “words can’t get through to her” in Korean.
But the president does have plenty of supporters.
“I think President Park is doing a good job,” said Choi Han-yong, a 45-year-old Seoul man, suggesting that some of the criticism of her was sexist. “It’s impossible for the president to take responsibility for everything and take care of every single matter in a country,” he said, adding that the police response to the “extreme” protests was appropriate.
Park’s approval rating is relatively high at about 45 percent, according to the latest opinion polls, after being stuck in the 30s for much of this year, although slightly more people still disapprove of her performance.
Park’s spokeswoman objected to critics’ suggestions that South Korea is returning to the repression of the first Park era. “It is widely recognized by the international community that Korea has achieved a history of establishing democracy, breaking away from the authoritarian rule in the past, and its people fully enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly and demonstration under the democratic law and order,” Chun Hye-ran said.
A single, state-issued textbook is needed, because current textbooks “written by a group of authors with politically biased views are misleading young students with a lopsided view of history,” Chun said, while the new anti-terrorism laws are needed as a preemptive measure against the kind of attacks that Paris recently suffered.
As for the protests, Chun said that “the Korean government upholds and protects a maximum extent of the freedom of assembly, in accordance with its constitution,” noting that the constitution does not protect those who infringe upon others’ rights and public order.
A Gallup Korea survey found that 60 percent of respondents agreed with Park when she said that masks should be banned at protests.
The difference in opinions could be linked to different definitions of the word “democracy,” said Koo Se-woong, the liberal editor in chief of Korea Expose, an online magazine that takes an alternative view from the mainstream media.
“In Korea, ‘democracy’ was never conceived of as liberal democracy in the sense that is known in the West,” Koo said, noting that South Korea has the threat of North Korea hanging over it. “It has always been very much about anticommunism, so here, you can engage in repressive tactics in the name of democracy.”