[Author’s Note: The following article is my introduction to a collection of articles recently published online which explores the role of the 2016-2017 Candlelight Revolution in giving birth to the advance made in inter-Korean negotiations and joint work on the Korean Peninsula in 2018.
Contrary to the view put forward by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), UNSC sanctions are not the source of the DPRK commitment to work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This article explains how it is the candlelight demonstrations in the ROK that have set the foundation for the changed environment and actions of the ROK and DPRK on the Korean Peninsula.
The collection of articles titled, “The Candlelight Revolution Continues” is online at
The article follows.]
In May 2018, I returned from a one month visit to South Korea. The visit was remarkable in a number of ways that I want to document and discuss. In order to understand the current developments, however, some background is needed. That background is what I refer to as the netizen developments.(1
My attention was first drawn to South Korea early in 2003 when mainstream Western newspapers carried accounts of how in December 2002, Roh Moo-hyun had been elected President by the netizens.(2 This was a reference to the Internet users who were committed to exploring their civic responsibility having been empowered by their newly acquired Internet access.
Roh’s election was propelled by demonstrations called Candlelight demonstrations, in response to netizen anger after two South Korean middle school students had been killed by a vehicle driven by U.S. Military Personnel. Roh was a human rights lawyer whose election was the product of a broad ranging campaign by netizens challenging the conservative practices that have been common during South Korean elections.(3
By 2008, Roh’s term was up. He was followed as president by Lee Myung-bak, a conservative business man who was elected to the presidency in part because the online campaigning that enabled Roh to win his election was now called illegal and forbidden and punished by big fines or even a potential jail term. Such restrictions took several more years to be overturned by the South Korean Constitutional Court. Lee Myung-bak served as the President of South Korea from 2008-2012.
Just a few weeks after he took office, President Lee introduced a number of programs that drew vehement opposition, particularly from netizens. This led to a 106-day Candlelight demonstration in Seoul along with other demonstrations around the country. Among the studies of the 2008 Candlelight demonstrations is one by Min Kyung-bae titled “Analog Government Digital Citizens.”(4
In his article, Min describes the growing gap between the netizens who have mastered digital technology and new ways of focusing on communication as opposed to the government officials who are stuck in the old patterns of analog technology. Min’s article describes how government officials had closed off some of the offline open areas where students and others could discuss and debate issues. In response netizens set up online forums where they could have discussion and debate. Then netizens took the frameworks they had created online and recreated them offline.
One example of this process was a debate held outdoors around midnight on June 10, 2008 which continued into the early morning hours on June 11. The issue of the debate was whether or not the demonstrators should climb over the shipping containers that the police had used to erect a barricade in front of the Blue House where the President lived and worked. During the offline debate many people online also participated by being in online contact with those who were out at the plaza participating in the debate. The result of the debate is that a decision was made for several protesters to climb onto the top of the shipping container barricade with their organization flags to demonstrate that they could have gone over the barricade but that they had publicly come to the conclusion they should not do that.
Their action demonstrated that such a debate/ discussion which could be carried out online, now could also occur offline. In this situation demonstrators learned that their online practice could be used to create such actions offline.
Such experience and lessons learned during the 2008 Candlelight demonstrations served the citizens and netizens of South Korea well when in 2016 they began six months of non violent Saturday demonstrations in their fight to impeach Park Geun-hye who had become the President of South Korea in the 2012 election.
II. The Inter-Korean Summit
When I arrived in Seoul late in April 2018, everyone’s attention was focused on the upcoming Inter-Korean Summit which was to take place on April 27.
Once the Summit began, the attention of all the South Koreans I observed in stores nearby or elsewhere was focused on the streaming TV programs broadcasting the Summit. The details of the unfolding event were impressive as the commitment of both President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea demonstrated a determination to work toward a peaceful future. A warm and friendly relationship showed signs of developing between the two and between their wives.
Several days later when I was having dinner with a Korean friend, the friend observed, “Who would have expected any of this to happen even just two years ago?”
III. The 2016-2017 Candlelight Demonstrations
My decision to take a trip to South Korea was in part motivated by the desire to hear the discussion and debates among activists and researchers about how they understood the 2016-2017 Candlelight demonstrations. When I arrived in Seoul, I learned that there were several conferences planned to analyze the 2016-2017 Candlelight demonstrations. One of the conferences was to be held toward the end of my visit, but it would all be in the Korean language without translation.
Fortunately, I was able to arrange interviews in English with a few of the researchers at that conference to hear about their work. One professor did a brief translation for me of the keynote presentation on the first day of the conference. He also arranged for a student to translate some presentations the second day of the conference. This conference was on the recent Candlelight demonstrations and their impact. I found the keynote especially interesting but since there was no written version available and the translation I was given was informal, I will share some of the notes I made with the proviso that these are my notes and not the result of any official or formal translation.
The title of the conference as rendered in the informal translation was: “Symposium on Candlelight Protest.” It was held in a National Assembly building in Seoul on May 18-19, 2018. The title of the keynote presented on May 18 by Kim Jung-bae was “Historical Significance and Challenges of Candlelight.”
In the keynote, Kim pointed to a book written a few years earlier about how around the world, democracy has been in retreat, for example in India and Turkey. Kim Jung-bae wondered, if democracy was in retreat everywhere, then how was it that the Candlelight protest was possible in South Korea? He said he was still seeking answers to this puzzle. He proposed that the drama of the Candlelight and its ramifications needed to be studied. He also described how he had attended a demonstration called by middle school students. He was surprised that they had come from across South Korea and that they put forward the need for a revolution. Kim Jung-bae made a number of other observations and raised issues to be explored. Then he returned to his concern that even after the Candlelight demonstrations, there was still a danger of South Korea retreating from democracy. He proposed there was a need to identify the fundamental motivation driving the Candlelight so as to keep it alive. Other papers at the conference explored various aspects of the Candlelight phenomenon. In general, the issues in contention revolved around two different views. One was that the candlelight was part of a revolutionary development. The other was that it was perhaps a form of popularism.
One of the reasons I have offered this background is that I felt it would be helpful to understand the kind of analysis and discussion that characterize the papers presented at another conference that took place on May 23. That conference was titled: “International Forum: The Role of Civil Society for the Improvement of Inter-Korean Relations and the Process of Peacebuilding on the Korean Peninsula.”
I want to point to some observations and recommendations in one particular paper presented at this conference, the paper by Lee Taeho titled, “The Role of Civil Society for Building Inter-Korean Trust and Peace on the Korean Peninsula.”(5 There are other similarly interesting observations and recommendations in other papers presented at the same conference, but for my summary Lee Taeho’s paper makes some particularly useful observations and recommendations.
IV. Observations and Recommendations
One significant observation made in Lee’s paper was that the relationship between the two Koreas had to be different after the 2016-2017 Candlelight Revolution from what it had been before. Some of the reasoning behind this observation was that the Candlelight Revolution provided for the democratic legitimacy of the Moon Jae-in government. The election that Moon Jae-in won shortly after the victory of the Candlelight was a direct result of the Candlelight Revolution’s winning the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. The Candlelight demonstrations provided support for the political authority of what would shortly afterwards become the Moon government. The success of the Candlelight Revolution resulted in part from the important role played by South Korean Civil Society. With this support, one can argue that Korean Civil Society has won the right to work together with the government to find solutions to difficult problems. But for that partnership to continue the government will have to work for better relations with the North since reconciliation and eventual reunification are crucial goals of many who are part of South Korean Civil Society.
Another basis for a different relationship between the government and the citizens, Lee’s paper proposes, is based on the experience demonstrating that the safety and well being of the people who live on the Korean Peninsula is dependent on decisions made by them, not by outside experts.
Drawing its conclusions from the success of the Candlelight demonstrations, the paper proposes “broad and open discussions” by the ordinary people “without limitation” on debate.
Lee’s paper calls for the government to form a discussion forum to make it possible for citizens to participate in the reviews and discussion of the direction the government should take to improve the relationship between the two Koreas so as to be able to resolve controversial issues. It proposes that civil society in South Korea work to “open a space where citizens as sovereign can have a discussion altogether and participate to build a peaceful consensus for coexistence.”
Lee’s paper argues that the legacy of the years of the division of Korea has created a challenging situation. In order not to be harmed by this legacy, civil society has to work to create a process which will require not just finding the middle ground between different views but a space to encourage free discussion of various visions and methods so as to arrive at processes to unify those with diverse experiences.
The paper concludes that, with the “dramatic change … unfolding on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia,” the role for civil society, is to “freely imagine, share, and boldly embody practices to overcome the division of the Korean Peninsula and to further the coexistence in East Asia while confronting old stereotypes, prejudice, and taboos that the division system emphasized to us, armed with a strong belief in changes that the participation and solidarity of the citizens of the Korean Peninsula and the entire world will help us draw out.”
A question is raised by the review of the Candlelight Revolution that has been going on in South Korea over the past 15 years. Is there a new political process unfolding in South Korea which can help forge a new relationship between the two Koreas. The experience of the Candlelights has helped to create a digital form of citizenship which is also a more participatory form of citizenship. Min Kyung-bae’s article about the 2008 Candlelight helped to document the nature of this new form of citizenship. Lee Taeho’s article documents some of the new processes that South Korean netizens and citizens have learned from the Candlelight experience which can be applied to the inter-Korean processes.
Another article, “Ushering in an Era of Great Transformation on the Korean Peninsula through Citizen Participation” by Lee Hyeuk-hee, demonstrates that there are other activists and researchers in South Korea trying to define this new political process and determine how it can help to forge a new relationship between the two Koreas. “A different era requires different thinking” writes the author, who is Chairperson of the Operation Committee of the NGO One Korea Action. Lee Hyeuk-hee describes what is happening on the Korean Peninsula as “this great transformation.” At its core, he writes, was the “Candlelight Revolution.”
While Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye sought to pursue a policy of confrontation with the DPRK, leading to a military crisis, earlier South Korean Presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun had begun the process of working toward a more long range and peace supporting inter-Korean policy. They instituted an engagement policy.
With a new government in the South put in place due to the success of the Candlelight Revolution, it became possible for the new president, Moon Jae-in, to return to an engagement policy. This involves economic, social and cultural interaction rather than Lee Myung-bak’s and Park Guen-hye’s policy of reunification through absorption.
Moon and Kim Jung-un have put in place a top down approach toward rapidly normalizing relations through “negotiation and dialogue between high ranking officials” which then is to be “expanded downward.”
The goal of this process is to institutionalize inter-Korean relations via the creation of a confederation of the North and South. A confederation means the North and the South can exist as two sovereign states for a period of time as they prepare for reunification, by first forming an economic community, then to a socio-cultural community and then finally to a political community.
Lee Hyeuk-hee argues that the previous failure of inter-Korean exchanges was the failure to “attract the masses” to be part of the process. He explains, their participation was needed in order to succeed in building a solidarity between the peoples of the two Koreas. The newly opened Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office could provide a means to create the structures to make possible the needed exchanges and cooperation. Lee Hyeuk-hee proposes the need for many contributions to forge the solidarity between the two cultures of the North and the South. Such contributions, he suggests, could be made by those who had been part of the Candlelight Revolution and by ‘regular’ citizens. Lee Hyeuk-hee argues, such wide ranging contributions and involvement is needed in order to finally end the cold war system still dividing the Korean people.
Min Kyung-bae, Lee Taeho, and Lee Hyeuk-hee all see the Candlelight Revolution as setting the basis for the new political processes that will make possible the new relationship to be built between the two Koreas.
The papers by Lee Taeho, and Lee Hyeuk-hee provide a set of proposals for how the two Koreas learning from the candlelight experience, can approach each other. This is a start. But also needed is continued study of the candlelight experience so as to broaden the insights and lessons that civil society and government can learn from so as to build a mass based solidarity among the peoples of the two Koreas. There is some experience that the Korean people have had, in both the North and the South to help with this. What is needed is discussion among the citizens and netizens of Korea and research efforts to meet the demands of such challenges.
1. See e.g., Michael Hauben, “The Net and Netizens: The Impact the Net has on People’s Lives.” Online at: http://www.columbia.edu/~rh120/ch106.x01
2. Barbara Demick, “‘Netizens’ Crusade Buoys New South Korean Leader: An unofficial online fan club is credited with helping Roh Moo Hyun into office by attracting young voters. It may continue to play a role.” LA Times, Feb 10, 2003. Online at: http://articles.latimes.com/2003/feb/10/world/fg-cyber10
3. Yun Young Min, “An Analysis of Cyber-Electioneering: Focusing on the 2002 Presidential Election in Korea,” Korea Journal, Vol. 43. No. 3 Autumn, 2003 pp.141-164. Online at: https://www.ekoreajournal.net/issue/view_pop.htm?Idx=3258
4. Min Kyung Bae, “Analog Government Digital Citizens, “Global Asia Vol. 3 No. 3, 2008.9, pp. 94-103. Online at: https://www.globalasia.org/v3no3/feature/analog-governmentdigital-citizens_kyung-bae-min
5. Lee Taeho, “The Role of Civil Society for Building Inter- Korean Trust and Peace on the Korean Peninsula,” at “The International Forum: The Role of Civil Society for the Improvement of Inter-Korean Relations and the Process of Peacebuilding on the Korean Peninsula” on May 23, 2018 in Seoul.