In April 2008, while the whole domestic media in the U.S. focused on the Pope’s visit, newly elected Korean President Lee Myung-bak also visited the country. Though he was not much welcomed by the U.S. media, he seemed to be quite proud of himself being invited to Mr. Bush’s Camp David, unlike his two predecessors affiliated with a ‘democratic’ party. The day before the summit, as a gesture of reaffirming their strong alliance, the president Lee, elected with a deceitful promise to “revive Korean economy,” unpacked a marvelous gift package for Mr. Bush: “Resumption of U.S. beef imports to Korea.”
Korea is the third-largest U.S. beef market, and negotiations concerning U.S. beef imports have been the biggest issue in concluding the bilateral trade treaty – Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. Because of the continual observations of bone pieces in imported U.S. beef, there has been the year-long on-and-off suspension of incoming U.S. beef shipment. The new president resolved this troublesome chore at one shot but in the awful and shameful way. The revised beef agreement enabled the imports of U.S. beef from cattle aged over 30 months that may have higher risks of mad cow disease, and moreover it allowed five SRMs including bones to be imported with beef. Let alone the humiliating diplomacy, this revision of agreement neglected and failed to protect the health of Korean people, abandoning country’s quarantine sovereignty as well as food sovereignty. Arousing people’s anger, President Lee, ex-CEO of Hyundai, commented that thanks to the imports of U.S. beef Korean people were offered a good chance to eat higher-quality beef at a better price – the neo-liberal incantation of free market.
Faced with reopening of the Korean market to American beef, with much loose criteria than ever and than other countries, Korean people began to protest against the undemocratic administrative power, worrying about their and the next generations’ health. Over hundreds of thousands – millions nationwide – of citizens and teen-age school girls had candlelit rallies at the heart of Seoul, and more radically, more than 1.3 million netizens lodged an online petition to impeach the president. The Korean peoples were demanding that the Lee Administration renegotiate the entire U.S. beef deal. However, the government and the leading Grand National Party seemed considering the possibility of redrafting a bill to halt U.S. imports only in case mad cow disease outbreak in the U.S., while blaming the pure protestors (quite a lot of them were teen agers) for violent political attack to government.
At least on the surface, it was the detrimental revision of Korea-US beef agreement that triggered the nationwide resistance. However, it is clear that there were more substantial causes of candlelight protests than fear of mad cow disease. People were angry at the failure of governmental policy and felt humiliating sense of submissive foreign policy especially to the world super power. Moreover, there was no communication between the state and civil society on this important matter. Most of all, it is said that people began to recognize what is lying behind the new government’s neoliberal policies – pro-chaebol and anti-working class tendency, deregulation of the division between financial and industrial capital, privatization of public corporations, intensification of limitless competitive education, etc. – and that they decided to resist against justification of governmental failure out of self-righteousness and sense of privilege. What is worth noting here is that the mass protests were strengthened by augmentation of citizen’s political and technological potential in Web 2.0 milieu.
Even though President Lee, faced with the national resistance, officially admitted his failure twice through the nationally televised apology, he forced to implement the deal. On the contrary, behind the superficial appeasement gestures, Lee Administration and several conservative newspapers were trying to extinguish the spreading candle lights both through the violent repression to the peaceful demonstrations and through the ideologically fabricated accusation of being supported by leftist anti-government organizations. Although the heat of candle lights was cooled down gradually by the governmental suppression and the exhaustion of continuous motivation, it is obvious that there will be theoretical and practical endeavors in various levels to understand the social, cultural, and political dynamics generated by candlelight rallies.
The Korean mass candlelight demonstrations were continued, and are, in a sense, still continuing, to the extent that it transformed the way of protest and spread into the domain of everyday life: opposition to the three conservative daily newspapers and consumer strikes against the advertisers and sponsors of those newspapers; guerrilla demonstrations closely connected with an online discussion board (“Agora” in a portal Daum), Blogging and citizen journalism (OhmyNews); small-scale Internet live broadcastings (New Progressive Party’s “Color TV”)of candlelight protest by individual citizens; various cultural festivals providing singing, dancing and free speech; loosely organized activities overturning and ridiculing repressive governmental authority such as a voluntary tour to police bus, souvenir picture taking at huge police barricade and so on.
Even though this routinized struggle has been generated from the citizen’s political self-awareness of the neoliberal essence of the ruling power, through the persistent on- and off-line conversations and debates, those forms of struggle have not built in a day. It needs to be viewed from the historical standpoint. History of mass demonstration in Korea is history of struggles – struggle against military dictatorship, struggle toward labor liberation, and struggle toward national unification and liberation from the 70s to the 80s laid the foundations of democracy in this country since the 90s. Candlelight appeared relatively lately as an icon of protest. The first candlelight demonstration might be held in 2002 to the memory of two girls who died being hit by a US Army armored vehicle. Since then, candlelight symbolized peaceful demonstration, whether political or not. On the one hand, the emergence of candle in the mass demonstrations means that violent resistance using the Molotov cocktails, stones and metal pipes come to the end. Thus no longer political demonstration had to be confined to the category of the organized, forceful and unlawful. On the other hand, candlelight is a symbol of network. As participants share light to other participants, the scale of candlelight increases ad infinitum. A fire in a candle is so weak to be easily blown out by the wind, but when it spreads it kindles the people to revolt. In other words, candlelight demonstrations have been radical experiments of a new form of political participation and new media technology (network) as well. These novelties do not mean intense break with previous struggles but certain qualitative changes. I want to see these changes that the candlelight protest of 2008 brought about in three respects.
Though there has been a gradual change in the direction of social movements at large since the settlement of formal democracy, it was striking for both longtime activists and the public themselves to observe the emergence of new subjects of resistance. Especially, it was a small group of young teenage school girls who lit the fuse for the massive candlelight march. Instead of traditional participants in the political mass demonstrations such as male laborers and university students, a large part of candlelight demonstrators were consist of much younger (teenage) generations, housewives with their kids and members of diverse online communities (fashion, interior design, plastic surgery, etc.) – this grassroots movement was led by ordinary citizens networked through broadband Internet and candlelight. They tended to make their own decision through street debates and online discussions, rather than following any leading group’s message or orientation. They seemed as if formless mob or crowd, loosely – even rarely – organized only with minimal manifesto. At some point, the existing organizations such as NGOs, leftist political groups, labor unions and opposition parties were trying to participate and lead the crowds, but none of them succeeded. Rather, they were disregarded and alienated from the autonomous and spontaneous flow of the public in some sense.
Another significant feature in this demonstration consists in making it fun and enjoyable. As one of progressive academic of politics expressed, citing Emma Goldman – “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution” – it was a “vivid and fun revolution, freed from solemnity of past movements” (Son). It seemed that people’s political consciousness and desire for political participation that reached the point of political maturity in the democratic way. Citizens participated in various group activities, but those were not any longer in the way of violent and highly organized struggle of the past but in the form of voluntary and spontaneous – thus, peaceful and joyful – resistance as if it were a sort of festival. It was even called the “candlelight revolution” and evaluated as having “basic elements of the same form of direct-democracy that emerged in the 1960s” (Katsiaficas). It was a “fun” revolution, not only because participants enjoyed their activities in crowds as cultural festivals with family members, friends and colleagues, but also because they made all the serious and dangerous situations provocative and even humorous: when their march was blocked by police and faced with water cannons, they demanded warm water and towels; they stick “illegal parking” sticker on police buses barricading the street; some netizens willingly arrested in order to board police buses and to take commemorative pictures of them there, calling these activities “chicken coop tour” (Min 101); when the police blocked Gwanghwamun Boulevard to the Blue House by stacking huge container boxes stuffed with sand bags as if the Great Wall of China, they ridiculed it by naming it “Myung-bak Wall.” Examples of creative and bitter reversal and counterblow are endless. However, these funny distortions did not lack seriousness. Through the candlelight protest, the negative and reactive “resistance” has turned into the positive and active – and healthy – “participation.” The public began to learn by experience how to fight cheerfully.
Most of all, it might be the issue of digital and network technology in the protests that has been discussed and dealt with the most by academics and journalism. A number of reports gave attention to the power of netizens and the contribution of high-speed WIFI internet connections to the success of the protest. Sometimes it was called “broadband democracy” or “democracy 2.0”. Nobody can deny that the Internet has been a key aspect of these demonstrations. Among other things, it was through Internet connection that the people learned the current affair. They began to have their own opinion on the situation through Internet while learning, posting, blogging and discussing information which would be impossible to access in the old days. That was indeed a national mobilization of all sort of new media technology: blog, online discussion boards, citizen journalism, mobile phone text messaging, live TV broadcasting of the protest scene using laptop and webcam, and so on. Moreover, beyond the limit of traditional – and conservative – press media, participation of online communities, webcasting, and blogs were creating a more bottom-up culture, making people active instead of only following leaders. In this web 2.0 digital media milieu, people become “recorders”, “analysts” and/or “disseminators” more than just “participants” (Min 99-100). As sort of citizen journalists, they recorded the protesters and police enforcement with their digital cameras, camcorders, or mobile phone cameras – sometimes webcams broadcasted live on the web – and then analyzed photos and video footages if there was any violent commitment while police’s putting down the demonstration. The analyzed information and their experience on the spot were disseminated online almost simultaneously through blogs or Internet forums.