Interview with the leader of Candlelight Revolution Tae-Ho Lee: the debate on militant (“jung mou”) and violence in South Korea

The civil rights movements in South Korea has a great influence on Hong Kong. In the past two months, the protest against President Park Geun-hye in South Korea in 2016 was often mentioned by the Hong Kong protestors. The Korean farmers who protest against WTO (World Trade Organisation) in Hong Kong in 2015 had inspired the Hong Kong youngsters in Anti-Hong Kong Express Rail Link Movement in 2015, as well as the discussion on “militant”, or “jung mou” protest in recent years. In July, at the height of anti-extradition bill movement, Red Balloon interviewed Mr Tae-Ho Lee, the leader of South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution, during his visit to Hong Kong, on the experience of their protest. 

South Korea had been in a long period of dictatorship in the post-war period and successfully transformed into democracy at the end of the 1980s. At the time of the regression of the world’s democracy, South Korea is also undergoing multiple transformations, guarding democracy at the crossroad. One who has watched the film “1987: When the Day Comes” (2017) would be familiar with South Korea’s democratisation in 1987. However, Roh Tae-woo, the successor to dictator Chun Doo-hwan, won the first presidential election with general suffrage, due to the failure of the opposition camp to agree on a candidate. It was not until 1993 that South Korea elected the first president who came from a background of democratic movement, Kim Young-sam.

The success of the June Struggle in 1987 doesn’t guarantee democracy once and for all. Even with universal suffrage, the people of South Korea still needed to take to the streets to protest for the removal of Park Geun-hye. In 2014 to 2015, the civil society in South Korea formed the Organizing Committee for People’s Candlelight Demonstrations in Korea which connected more than three hundred groups in seventy cities to march against Park Geun-hye. The Organizing Committee is comparable to the Civil Human Rights Front in Hong Kong, though the ability to mobilisation and the strengths of the civil society is of a different scale.

Tae-Ho Lee was one of the contacts of the Committee. As a “lead centre” (or “Daai Toi”, a HK protest slang), he points out that the most difficult part of the Candlelight Revolution is how to unite demonstrators of different opinions. Before the success of the Candlelight Revolution in 2016, South Korea also experienced the low tide of social movement and the disputes between “militant” versus “peaceful demonstration”. Tae-Ho Lee starts his story in 2008 when there was a large candlelight gathering, but the participants’ appeals were diverse. Some farmers were fighting against the import of American beef; the other protestors were to express their dissatisfaction with the conservative ruling party. Also, the crowd stayed behind after the peaceful assembly time; the organizers of the assembly could not disband the crowed and thus they had to face the police clearing the site. This situation is not uncommon in large gatherings in 2008. The movement ended in the controversy of the protestors, and by 2010, the scale of the demonstrations turned smaller. 

In the 2012 election, Park Geun-hye won. Public opinion began to raise doubts about her election fraud, saying she hired the "internet water army" to disturb the election. At the time, there was also internal debate in the movement to investigate the election fraud or to overthrow the Park regime directly. Over the years, Tae-Ho has witnessed debates within the movement about “peaceful protest” or “militant in the struggle”. The former approach, Lee himself being an example, emphasizes holding peaceful rallies. He laughed and said, "In fact, I was also heavily criticised at that time." Even in 2014, it was still difficult to find consensus within the movement.

The dispute between the two groups came to a turning point in 2015. Farmer Baek Nam-gi was shot by water canon during a struggle and died consequently, triggering a larger wave of demonstrations. Although Tae-Ho Lee did not completely agree with their method, he admitted that the death of the activist created a great sense of unity. The people inside the movement put down their prejudice and came together, which had impacted the anti-Park struggle in 2016. Tae-Ho Lee believes that after the internal split and failure in 2008, the people at that time became a generation. When they came together again in 2016, they finally learned to remain united and seeking common ground while holding back differences. 

In fact, in the history of the democratic movement in South Korea, the tradition of “militant" has always occupied an indispensable  place. Under the military rule of the 1980s, there was a discussion of "armed struggle" in the universities. At that time, whether it was those who advocated nonviolent protest or armed protest, there  was a consensus that self-defence force to protect oneself in the face of police violence was necessary.

After the democratic transition, non-violent actions based on the concept of "civil disobedience" and “direct action” emerged in the 1990s, but the interpretations within the movement also diverse. Tae-Ho Lee said that there are many aspects to the complexity of this issue in Korea. For starters, in theory, North and South Korea are still in a state of war. "Violence" itself is something that is very much visible in society. Moreover, in the past few years, in addition to police and state violence, social movements have also faced violent groups supported by the state. The discussion on whether or not to use force in South Korea social movements was developed under a realistic and historical context as such. Today, the people who advocate "armed struggle" are very little, while advocaters of self-defence against police violence are prominent. For Tae-Ho Lee, despite that he believes in the non-violent struggle, he thinks it is very important to take the initiative to understand the opinions of the hardcore/ valiant protestors.

"In a demonstration, when the police used police vehicles to block roads, the reactions from the people were very different." Tae-Ho Lee illustrates some examples: some people would stand in front of the police car and shout out slogans, some would make a detour, and some would knock it down. "In most cases, people chose to… knock down the police vehicle!” Lee laughed and said, "Our organisation is against destroying the police vehicles, but of course no one listens." So how do they alleviate the violence? They took the case to the court, arguing that the police using the police cars as roadblocks to prevent the deployment of a peaceful demonstration is unconstitutional. Eventually, they won the case.

Lee initially thought that since they won the case, the police could no longer use buses as roadblocks, and the protesters would not need to destroy them. However, after the delivery of the court’s judgement, the police found loopholes in the sentence and continued to place police vehicles on the planned protest route. When people saw the police car, they thought, did the Constitutional Court not say that the police cannot do this? “This makes them even madder. They think that the police are breaking the law and thus they are more legit to knock down the vehicles." Lee smiled wryly and said, “Even though it is illegal for the police to do so, it is also illegal to vandalise the police vehicles. Many people were imprisoned for this." Even in the anti-Park struggle in 2016, how to deal with the vandalisation of the police vehicles is still a very tough question. It seems that what Lee can do further are little.

At the first "Mother's Rally” rose "Battle of Love" adapted from a Korean democratic movement melody. It makes Lee felt that the spirit of the Korean movement has passed on to other places. The protesters of the anti-extradition bill movement are very young. On this account, Lee sees the hope of the future. He believes that the impact of this movement will not be limited to Hong Kong. It will affect young people from all over Asia, including China.