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(News Focus) One year on, candle-lit protests mark new milestone in Korea's history of democracy

2017/10/25 10:49

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SEOUL, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- This weekend one year ago, tens of thousands of citizens swarmed into a central plaza in Seoul demanding the resignation and punishment of a corruption-tainted leader.

It started a peaceful civic uprising which continued for the following six months on an unprecedented scale in Korea and wrote a new chapter in its checkered history of democracy.

President Park Geun-hye was ousted and brought to justice. A liberal president took power for the first time in nearly 10 years. The new government launched a sweeping campaign to restore democracy and justice, and redress graft, power abuses and rights violations under past administrations.

"The peaceful exercise of democratic participation and in particular the civic right of peaceful assembly are the essential components of democracy," said Sven Schwersensky, the Korea chief of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Germany's oldest political foundation, during a press conference last week.

The group picked the Korean demonstrators to receive the prestigious Human Rights Award Prize this year.

This photo, taken Feb. 25, 2017, shows citizens staging a candlelight rally at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken Feb. 25, 2017, shows citizens staging a candlelight rally at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

President Moon Jae-in, who took office in May, promised to uphold the "candlelight spirit" -- citizens' aspirations for enhanced democracy and social justice -- as the overarching principle of his statecraft.

"The Republic of Korea's new government is one that the candlelight revolution has established," the president said during his keynote speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month.

"Beyond the meaning of its democratic election, it is the administration that was launched by citizens' sense of ownership, and their participation and aspirations," he added.

The first candlelight protest occurred at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul on Oct. 29, 2016. Around 30,000 citizens gathered to demand Park's apology and resignation after reports alledged that Choi Soon-sil abused her longtime friendship with Park to meddle in state affairs and extort financial gains from major conglomerates.

Until late April, 23 weekend rallies had taken place at the square less than a kilometer away from the presidential compound Cheong Wa Dae. No major clashes occurred. Organizers put the accumulated number of participants during the six-month period at 16 million.

Throughout the demonstrations, the protesters clamored for the establishment of "a nation worthy of being called a nation," one in which they could take pride, and for an end to deep-seated corruption in the country's top echelons.

This photo, taken Sept. 21, 2017, shows President Moon Jae-in speaking during the U.N. General Assembly in New York. (Yonhap) This photo, taken Sept. 21, 2017, shows President Moon Jae-in speaking during the U.N. General Assembly in New York. (Yonhap)

True to those calls, the Moon administration has pledged far-reaching reforms to remove the "accumulated ills" of past governments, improve transparency in state governance and restore public trust.

In July, the presidential state affairs planning advisory panel fleshed out Moon's reform pledges in a five-year policy roadmap.

"The Moon government's most important task is to build a country worthy of being called a country on the foundation of justice," the panel said in a statement, pledging to begin a "citizens' era based on the candlelight civil revolution."

   "Justice is the core value that encompasses the demands for overcoming people's anger and anxieties, eliminating accumulated ills and carrying out reforms to enhance people's livelihoods," it added.

At the heart of Moon's reform drive was the move to address the alleged misdeeds of the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments, which led the country for nine years beginning in 2008.

In recent months, his government has burrowed deep into various politically-charged cases such as the bungled state response to a 2014 maritime disaster, the spy agency's alleged election meddling in 2012 and the purported blacklisting of cultural figures deemed critical of the conservative governments.

The administration has also pushed to stamp out corruption in the defense industry, denouncing any irregularities as "acts aiding and abetting enemies." Moreover, it has tried to revamp power organs such as the spy agency and prosecution, long accused of political bias.

The reform endeavors have translated into high popularity for Moon. In his first 100 days, the president's ratings hovered around 80 percent, though it has been in the upper 60-percent range in recent weeks.

Opposition parties have watched Moon's reform campaign with great suspicion. They argue the campaign has been part of Moon's "political retribution" and claimed he has been engrossed in "settling old scores."

   The president has repudiated the argument, saying his campaign was aimed at altering the deep-rooted "structure of unfairness and privileges."

   Amid the pushback, Moon needs to strive harder to pursue "cooperative politics," given he requires legislative support from the opposition-led National Assembly to advance his reform agenda, observers stressed.

Currently, the ruling Democratic Party holds only 121 parliamentary seats, far short of a majority in the 299-seat assembly.

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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