Big anti-government protests continue in South Korea

A week after more than 1 million people took to the streets of Seoul on 12 November to call for the resignation of South Korean president Park Geun-hye, anti-government protests again broke out in more than 70 locations around the country.

The demonstrations on 19 November brought out more than 600,000 people in Seoul and between 350,000 and 500,000 in provincial cities and towns, including Busan, Daegu and Gwangju.

Over the past month, outrage has continued to grow in the wake of the revelation that Choi Soon-sil, the president’s close confidante of 40 years, had access to confidential government documents and was acting as a government adviser.

Choi, who holds no official position in Park’s administration and is closely linked to a shamanistic cult, has been accused of interfering with government decision-making and using her relationship with Park to obtain more than A$91 million in donations via a variety of foundations, allegedly siphoning off much of it for personal use.

In the wake of the scandal, Park’s personal approval rating has plummeted to just 5 percent. The latest opinion polls show that 74 percent of citizens believe she should resign or be impeached. According to polling agency Real Meter, public opinion has steadily turned against Park since the scandal broke on 24 October.

Park has been trying to ride out the scandal by issuing a number of apologies and firing a range of ministers and presidential aides connected to the scandal surrounding Choi. Park has continued to claim that she had no involvement in any criminal activity.

Her supporters also took to the streets on 19 November in a bid to save her presidency. Approximately 4,000 predominantly older citizens joined the pro-Park action at Seoul Station, which was organised by more than 80 hard-right anti-communist groups, many of which continue to revere Park’s military dictator father, Park Chung-hee. The pro-Park protesters called on Park to ignore the demands to resign and accused the anti-Park demonstrators of being North Korean agents.

In contrast to the pro-Park rally, the mass rallies against Park have been organised by a coalition of 1,500 progressive civil society groups, revealing the breadth of opposition not only to the current scandal, but also to Park’s authoritarian crackdown on civil, democratic and workers’ rights over the last three years.

Students and workers in particular have played a leading role in the protests over the last month. On 11 November, the night before the million-strong protest in Seoul, more than 4,000 high school students and their parents turned out to protest Park and Choi’s crony capitalism in the president’s home town of Daegu.

Similarly, on 17 November, high school students in Seoul staged a series of protests, taking to the streets in their uniforms immediately after completing university entrance exams. Tens of thousands of high school and university students also joined the nationwide protests on 19 November.

According to the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, the students were decrying “life in a society where they’re told to study day and night, but the powerful can get ahead through cheating”. In particular, the students at the 17 November protests cited Choi Soon-sil’s abuse of her personal relationship with Park, which enabled her daughter to gain admittance to the prestigious Ewha Women’s University, as well as Park’s failure to address the crony capitalism surrounding the sinking of the Sewol ferry, which resulted in the death of more than 300 high school students in April 2014.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have joined the protests, many of whom had already been protesting in the weeks and months before the current corruption scandal broke. They oppose Park’s new labour laws and the crackdown on trade unionists and democratic rights.

Led by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, workers have vowed to continue putting pressure on Park to step down and have called a one-day nationwide strike for 30 November.