30 years ago, South Koreans took to the streets demanding free elections. Now, the nation's president has been ousted by a democratic popular movement. It's an epic event in the country's history, says Fabian Kretschmer.
The deep rifts within South Korean society were on vivid display on Friday after the constitutional court ruled in favor of President Park Geun-hye's impeachment. The court's verdict caused anguish among thousands of Park supporters gathered in central Seoul. But just a few yards away, on the other side of the police barricades, anti-Park demonstrators welcomed the ruling.
The two sides appeared to have nothing in common ideologically.
And yet, one thing was different this time around. Although South Korea's society is normally divided along the lines of the country's two main political camps, many conservatives in recent weeks have supported the demands put forth by left-wing activists.
They, too, wanted to overthrow their head of state, despite the optimism with which she had been elected to office four years ago. Ultimately, though, Park's presidency was too great a disappointment for those who had traditionally supported her.
No country for old people
In 2013, Park promised to cut the government's close ties to big conglomerates. It has been evident for a while now that the 65-year-old politician not only failed in this regard, but actually reinforced the corrupt system. Park Geun-hye is accused of involvement in pressuring firms like Samsung and Lotte to transfer millions of dollars to foundations controlled by her close confidante Choi Soon-sil.
Furthermore, the ousted president faces allegations of systematically cutting off state subsidies to some artists and silencing journalists critical of her administration by threatening them with defamation suits.
But despite the scandals, there is one group that continued to support Park until the end: South Korea's senior citizens. Many of them are currently in their 70s and experienced the bitter poverty of the post-World War II period.
Their hard work and collective loyalty towards their home country helped lay the foundation for the rapid economic growth South Korea experienced in the subsequent decades. Under military dictator Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye's father, South Korea rose from the ashes of the Korean War.
Now, many elderly citizens talk nostalgically of the past and feel they have been left out in today's prosperous South Korea, which suffers from the highest rate of old-age poverty among OECD countries. Confucian family values have largely vanished in South Korea's current hyper-capitalist society, and many pensioners live together and in miserable conditions in impoverished settlements dotting the capital.
But the frustration of the elderly is also a result of the decades-long ideological brainwashing that took place under the military dictators of South Korea.
Until the 1980s, a ubiquitous Cold War paranoia permeated South Korean society. The enemy, in the form of North Korea, was nearby. The regime in Pyongyang was held responsible for all social evils, including domestic opposition. This friend-enemy discourse has persisted with Park supporters to this day. Psychologically, they suspect North Korean agents or South Korean communists to have played a role behind every left-wing demonstration.
The mass public demonstrations that ultimately led to Park's ousting were led by the nation's youth who have grown increasingly vexed at the corrupt economic and political elites who seem to be above the law while young people struggle with precarious working conditions and job insecurity.
Young South Koreans have taken to calling their home country "Hell Joseon," referring to an ancient feudal kingdom from the 19th century. They have lost faith that hard work and education are sufficient for economic and social advancement. For them, Park's impeachment is a source of satisfaction and symbolizes a step in the right direction.
The mass anti-Park demonstrations have politicized a generation that has been branded as hedonistic and materialistic.
The nation's youth, who were at the forefront of these peaceful protests, have learned that their actions ultimately can bring about change – and even hold to account the most powerful person in the country.
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