SEOUL — South Koreans from across the country and across generations peacefully took to the streets of the capital Saturday night, calling through songs, shouts and placards for the immediate resignation of their scandal-plagued president, Park Geun-hye.
With as many as 1 million people on the streets of Seoul, it was South Korea’s largest demonstration in more than a decade — no small feat in a country with a vibrant protest culture — and it increased the pressure on Park over a widening corruption and influence-peddling controversy.
Most analysts, however, do not expect her to heed calls to quit, especially as neither the opposition nor the ruling party — nor Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general and potential South Korean presidential candidate — are ready for a snap election.
Still, the message from Saturday’s candlelight protest was clear.
“I want her to step down. I want an end to her administration and for an entirely new one to come in,” said Lee Yu-jin, who had traveled for an hour to Seoul with her husband and 8-year-old daughter. “If the wrong leader is elected, this kind of thing can happen. I want my daughter to know that we can take action.”
The Park administration has been plunged into the worst crisis of its turbulent tenure after news emerged that Park had been taking advice on topics as diverse as North Korea and her wardrobe from a lifelong friend with no policy experience and links to a questionable cult.
The woman, Choi Soon-sil, has also been accused of using her relationship with Park to solicit $70 million in donations for foundations from big businesses such as Samsung, which she is accused of embezzling instead. Choi has been arrested and is being questioned by prosecutors, as are several of Park’s close aides.
Although South Korea is no stranger to corruption scandals, this one has infuriated people who think that democracy has been circumvented and wonder whether the country was being run by a “shadow president” with no experience. They are also angry that the institutions of government — from the prosecutor’s office to the presidential Blue House itself — not only did not intervene, but seemed to have helped Choi.
Many opposition lawmakers, and even some in the ruling Saenuri Party, are calling for Park to resign, triggering an election within 60 days. She has defied calls to step down, apparently wanting to stay until her term ends in February 2018.
But her efforts to quell the public fury through apologies and reshuffles have not worked. Her approval rating remains at 5 percent, Gallup Korea said Friday, a record low for any president.
For the third Saturday in a row, South Koreans turned out in central Seoul, demonstrating within earshot of the Blue House and calling on Park to step down.
Organizers said there were 1 million people at the protest, which had the atmosphere of a carnival. Police put the number at 260,000. Either way, it far surpassed the official estimate of 43,000 people who took part in the previous week’s protest, and also the 80,000 people who took to the streets in 2008 to protest the imports of U.S. beef during an outbreak of mad cow disease.
Tens of thousands of people had arrived by bus from the southern cities of Busan and Ulsan, and about 1,000 people from the southern island of Jeju flew into Seoul on 30 flights.
Student and women’s groups, together with labor and farmers unions, had organized rallies in the lead-up to the main demonstration, which featured singers and speeches but none of the violence that has plagued past protests.
There were families with children, including babies in strollers, and people using wheelchairs. Some people sat on mats on the street, waving candles and eating snacks, while others marched toward the Blue House singing a specially written song with the lyrics “Park Geun-hye must step down.”
“This incident has made us reflect on how we haven’t cared enough about politics and have not been keeping close enough watch on how the government is run,” said Kim Wan-kyu, a 34-year-old office worker who joined the demonstration with two friends.
Jo Sung-eun, 31, joined the protests for the first time Saturday. “I came out in solidarity and in the hope Park will step down as soon as possible,” Jo said.
“She’s not the president for the people; she’s been the president for one person,” she said, referring to Choi.
Daniel Pinkston, a professor at Troy University’s campus in Seoul, said the Choi scandal had become a focal point for other grievances that were simmering in South Korea.
“The Choi Soon-sil case is like the last straw,” he said. “It has energized people to come out with all these wider grievances with labor relations, school fees, unemployment, economic inequality and insecurity.”
The president’s office was taking the protests seriously and listening to the public’s concerns, a spokesman said. Top aides to the president held meetings Saturday to discuss how to respond to the rally and were expected to convene again Sunday.
“As people are furious about scandal, we are carefully watching the situation and trying to figure out a way to deal with it,” an unnamed presidential official told the Yonhap News Agency.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.