Often referred to as Choi Soon Sil Gate, a derisory term meant to evoke the Watergate scandal, it has recently come to light that Choi Soon sil, a close friend and unofficial confidant of President Park Geun Hye, has been whispering in the President’s ear. This flaunting of democratic ideals has not gone over well with South Korean citizens, as the President was soon inundated with demands that she step down from office. In this turbulent political scene, students should muster the courage to take up a more active role in the fight against injustice.
President Park’s apology for the Choi Soon sil affair lasted only a minute and a half, and even then it came across more perfunctory rather than heartfelt. This apology, which symbolized the Park administration’s incompetence and corruption, also demonstrated what depths the President was willing to sink to for self-preservation. South Korean citizens responded in kind by launching mass protests, of which the largest was the Candlelight Vigil and People’s Rally held on November 12, where an unprecedented one million citizens congregated to call for the President’s immediate resignation.
Throughout all this, there has been a conspicuous absence of massive student-led protests in the vein of the April 19 Revolution. Content with posting indictments and condemnatory comments online, most students have been reluctant to take to the streets waving placards lest they face disadvantages later in life. This rings true particularly when one considers that South Korean students inhabit a social environment steeped in conservatism and which stigmatizes such protests. Yet members of the student community need to realize that what they receive in return for demonstrations is far greater than what they stand to lose.
John Locke, the political philosopher who laid the groundwork for the liberal political system that South Korea has adopted, claimed that the government is nothing more than a vehicle for the people. To him, it is an institution that is supposed to protect the people’s right to self-determination, or the right to be governed by laws that represent their own interests and wishes. According to Locke, when the government fails to uphold the people’s right to self-determination, the people can and should invoke the right to resistance, something that does not preclude active protestation against an iniquitous government but instead encourages it.
For the last four years, it has been the will of a single unelected civilian rather than the will of the people vested in government representatives that shaped South Korea. President Park has, in effect, deprived the people of their right to self-determination; there is thus no better time to exercise the right to resistance. Those who condemn protests for fostering social unrest and anarchy forget that South Korean citizens are willing and able to organize non-violent protests. This is evidenced by the November 12 People’s Rally, which progressed with minimal violent altercations. Now is not the time to waive the right to resistance out of a misplaced sense of righteousness.
That said, there are a few lines that should not be crossed. Protestors must abide by the procedures laid out in the law, no matter how unsavory they may seem. This is in order to demonstrate that the people are willing to uphold the law even if the government might have no compunction about transgressing it. Additionally, protestors should engage in non-violent protests. Violence only begets violence, and as such violent protests should be avoided in order to prevent escalation.
Paraphrasing the words of Baruch Spinoza, rights are not given to the people by some divine power; they have to be earned. Students need to ask themselves; “Do we still yearn for a safe, uneventful life if it means being divested of our agency? Or do we want to create social change and take back our right to self-determination, regardless of the handicaps that it might entail?” The choice is there to be made.