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Korea: It's Not About the Beef Anymore
Round 21: Candleholders vs. 2MB
Michael Solis (msolis)     Print Article 
Published 2008-05-30 17:47 (KST)   
Please note the author has provided video (in MPEG format) of the demonstrations. The link is at the bottom of this article.  <Editor's Note>
Students and citizens gather in downtown Seoul in the early hours of May 30.
©2008 OhmyNews Kwon Woo-sung
"It's a bird!"
"It's a plane!"
"It's... Candle Girl?"

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For anti-FTA, US beef, and Lee Myung-bak protestors in Korea, the image of a young girl wielding a lit candle has become a chief unifying symbol. Even more than the images of cross-eyed, American cows, the vampiric visage of President Lee devouring a bloody steak, and the "Lee Myung-bak OUT!" signs, Candle Girl represents an underlying theme of the recent demonstrations: a search for light at the end of what is hoped to be a very truncated tunnel.

Thursday night marked the twenty-first mass demonstration of the protestors in downtown Seoul. Twinkling lights filled the streets like a swarm of flickering fireflies. They flew through City Hall, Jongro and Gwangwhamun, stalling traffic and eliciting responses from thousands of stone-faced and glossy-eyed police officers.

Indeed, candle girls were in widespread attendance. But they were not the only ones making their voices heard at the mass demonstration. A deluge of candle boys, candle women, candle men, candle grandparents, candle babies, candle students, and candle foreigners also flooded the streets demanding renegotiation and change from President Lee and the Grand National Party.

Locally and internationally, the press has presented a skewed version of what is currently happening in Korea. Firstly, the Korean government's and, subsequently, the press's estimate for the number of demonstrators is approximately 8,000, while Korean NGOs have reported there to have been approximately 50,000 candleholders on Thursday night alone. According to these NGOs, six people were arrested on Thursday, 200 people have been arrested to date, and nearly half have been released.

Secondly, the press has portrayed the Korean public as a confused, meat-fearing and myth-creating mass. While rumors about American meat have surely disseminated throughout Korea, the fact remains that Koreans are not portraying the United States as the culprit of the dispute. Instead, all fingers are pointing at one man: President Lee.

Riot police and students lock arms, May 30.
©2008 OhmyNews Kwon Woo-sung
Protesters' signs read: "Notice of Invalidation. Ignoring the people, Lee Myung-bak Out."
©2008 OhmyNews Yu Sung-ho
According to Hong, a candleholder at the protest, the issue is no longer about the meat.

"We are here to demonstrate the power of the people. We are fighting 2MB because he does not accept the thinking of the public."

"2MB," a newly created expression, is short for Lee Myung-bak and is used in a joking and intentionally disrespectful manner as far as presidential tastes go. In Korean, "Lee" shares the same pronunciation with the number 2. Thus, "2MB" serves as a double acronym for the more familiar phrase "two megabytes," which is meant to be an indication of the president's limited intellectual capacities.

"2MB brings back memories of twenty years of intense struggling," said Hong. "Korean history has shown us that Korea can always be made stronger by fighting together against bad leaders."

Poster of a blood-thirsty President Lee and a cow gone mad
©2008 Michael Solis
Regrettably, the Korean public suffered through decades of poor and brutal leadership during the majority of the 20th century. Consequently, this fueled generations of Koreans to learn and pass on a distinctive protest spirit that drives Koreans to the streets for an array of causes, such as calling for renegotiations of the FTA, releasing victims who have been imprisoned under the National Security Act, and demanding an apology and reparations for the Korean "grandmothers" or "comfort women," to name a few.

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Historically, Koreans demonstrated constantly throughout the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan (1980 to 1988) despite the inherent risks that came with speaking out against an authoritarian ruler. The Gwangju massacre of 1980, which resulted in an estimated 200 deaths, the wounding of nearly 2,000 others, and the "disappearance" of approximately1,000, was proof of the ruthless approach that Chun took towards pro-democracy protestors.

Although Chun strengthened the Korean economy, demonstrators continued to protest against his authoritarian regime, drawing great power from a student group known as the 386s. The final catalyst for mass Chun-related protest was Chun's selection of then Major General Roh Tae-Woo as the ruling party's candidate for the 1987 "elections."

"Lee Myung-bak rules Korea similarly to Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-Woo," reported Kim, a Korean human rights activist. "His government is a pack of lies and it has had problems from the very beginning."

Anti-US beef protesters lock arms in a sit-down protest in downtown Seoul, May 30.
©2008 OhmyNews Yu Sung-ho
FTA and meat aside, Lee Myung-bak's first three months in office have been wrought with controversial policies and strategic sidestepping over the opinions of the general public. One such idea, for instance is the controversial and extremely unpopular Canal Project, which will involve connecting Seoul and Busan with a manmade canal.

President Lee hopes that the project will create jobs and attract more tourists to Korea. Certainly, the project would result in new job opportunities for those interested in hole-digging. However, such opportunities also come with the economic and environmental price of carving a giant and entirely inefficient scar across Korea's mountainous countryside.

"Last month the government reported that it won't pursue the project," said Kim. "But it recently changed the name of the plan to something along the lines of the Korea Four Rivers Connection Project. It is the same project but they are trying to present it under a different name."

With respect to women's rights, many activists feel that Lee Myung-bak's Grand National Party has failed Korean women by reducing the size of and resources for the Ministry of Gender Equality. They have also accused President Lee of supporting laws that provide men with increased socio-economic advantages over women.

"The government is trying to revive a law that we fought several years ago to abolish," said Kim. "The past law provided men who had completed mandatory military service with preferences in the application and examination processes for becoming public service personnel."

In addition, the Korean "grandmothers" are enraged by Lee Myung-bak's sheer refusal to acknowledge the terrors of sexual slavery that were forced upon them prior to and during World War II. At their weekly Wednesday protests, the grandmothers are now pressuring President Lee, as well as the Japanese government, because they feel he has abandoned the daughters of Korea by placing economic and diplomatic relations with Japan over unresolved historical issues.

Candle Girl
©2008 Michael Solis
Admittedly, it was gratifying to see smiles form on the faces of the grandmothers at their 815th demonstration this past Wednesday. In front of the Japanese embassy, Candle Girl appeared just in time to save Seoul from a masked Lee Myung-bak. Candle Girl and President Lee engaged in a three-round boxing match, and true to form, Candle Girl defeated the unpopular president with three stunning headlocks and knockout uppercuts to the face.

The list of President Lee's poor policy decisions goes on: systematically increasing the occurrence and harshness of crackdown policies against undocumented migrant workers, enforcing visa regulations that discriminate on the basis of medical status, attempting to dissolve the Unification Ministry, failing to consider plans for the future of North and South Korean relations, attempting to secure executive control of Korea's human rights infrastructure, proposing a doomed policy requiring that all elementary, middle, and high school classes be taught in English, and privatizing health care and public utilities companies.

"The Korean people did not give power to Lee Myung-bak to run the government like this," stated Choi, another candleholder at the Thursday protest. "He claims that the FTA will improve the Korean economy, but his actions are suspect. He is attempting to address certain institutes through a process of governmental privatization. But who takes over these institutes? 2MB, the chaebol, the wealthy Koreans. Only the top 5 percent of the Korean government are the ones who will benefit from this type of strategy."

With reason, Koreans have grown suspicious of the entirely capitalist rationale of the nation's CEO, as President Lee referred to himself during his recent visit with George W. Bush in the United States. With President Lee's popularity ratings dipping into the twenties and teens by certain estimates, it seems that he will not be able to hold his own with the increasing numbers and power of fierce candleholders.

"Lee Myung-bak left on an official trip to China," Choi commented when the protest came to a halt, blocked by the police in Gwangwhamun. "Maybe they'll even send him back to Korea. No one wants him anymore."

- FTA protest through the streets of downtown Seoul 

The names of the candleholders quoted in this article have been changed in order to ensure the protection of their identities.

Michael Solis is a graduate of Princeton University
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Solis

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