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Continuing the Struggle of June 10, 1987
Massive candlelight demonstration in South Korea marks celebration of democratic victory
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-11 07:50 (KST)   
It is Tuesday, June 10, here in New York City; in South Korea, it is now past midnight on Wednesday. There have been large demonstrations in South Korea to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the 1987 victory over the military dictatorship.

It was possible to see clips of the massive Seoul demonstration thanks to the OhmyTV live broadcast. It was reported that more than 1,700 organizations were involved in the plans for the Seoul demonstration.

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As one of my Korean friends explained, June 10 is the day the June Struggle was ignited in earnest in 1987. Another friend described how on June 10, people protested against the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan. More and more people joined the 1987 protests and the massive street demonstrations won a revision of the constitution to allow for the direct election of the president.

Many people in South Korea have been taking part in the recent candlelight demonstrations or watching them as best they can as part of the effort to forge a path forward for South Korean democracy. This is the continuation of the process I found ongoing when I visited South Korea in April and early May.

I found my friends were seriously thinking about the problem they saw with the current government and what to do about it. They felt the government under the new president was going off on its own without any regard for the people. I had several conversations with different people who were trying to understand what democracy means, and whether there was a model for South Korea to look to as it develops its democratic society.

In December 2007, South Koreans had a presidential election that led to the election Lee Myung-bak. Lee had been the CEO of Hyundai, one of the largest corporations in South Korea. After his election, he seemed to be running the government like a business rather than taking into account citizens as part of the processes of governing.

May 2 was my last night in South Korea during this visit. That was the day the first candlelight demonstration was held to protest the beef deal that South Korea had recently negotiated with the United States.

I didn't go to the candlelight demonstration but instead spent the evening talking with some friends. The conversation turned to the question of what is democracy and how citizens could be the sovereign, rather than the subjects. Also, at the time I learned that there was a petition drive to urge the impeachment of the newly elected president.

The background of the protests is described in "South Korean Gov't Mishandled the Beef Deal: Korean Netizens Continue Candlelight Vigils."

One response to me about the article from a mailing list I am on asked, Why did so few people choose to participate in the presidential election of December 2007 and register their democratic will at the institutional level? This is a good question as the percentage of the population voting was quite low in the recent South Korean presidential election.

Many netizens who tried to participate in the period leading up to the election were censored by the South Korean government and their posts removed from the Internet. Some even received summonses to report to the police

In the 2002 presidential election, netizens challenged the way that the mainstream media framed election-related issues, and in the process the issues were clarified and became more policy- rather than personality-focused. Such debate generated much interest, even among sectors of the population not previously involved in elections. The result was that the election became more inclusive and involving of a larger sector of the population than previously.

The government's censorship of the Internet and netizens during the 2007 presidential campaign election prevented the kind of activity and involvement that took place in 2002.

Also, the censorship made it more difficult to review what had happened during the previous five years and to learn from the experience so as to have more-democratic processes in the future.

The current struggle is a difficult one because it involves the struggle to create greater democracy, to create a situation where the people actually are able to be the sovereign.

An editorial in the English-language edition of Hankyoreh describes how the current struggle by the Korean people is a manifestation of their sovereignty. The editorial explains: "There is but one reason they have been hollering at the government from the streets, and for more than a month now. They wanted to confirm that they are owner of this country."

The editorial explains that while the June 1987 struggle won procedural democracy, "now people want to go beyond those formal procedures and see the realization of substantive democracy." This means that it is not for the president to ignore the will of the people.

This sentiment is captured in the writings of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, "Le roi sommes nous" ("We Are the King"). This is the vision also of Thomas Paine in his book The Rights of Man, where he outlines that the purpose of the creation of a constitution by the people is to make it possible for them to oversee their government officials. Such efforts to determine how to create democratic processes are a continuing challenge.

The Internet makes it possible for those online to discuss the issues they are concerned about and to share their views with others, to debate differences and for new ideas to emerge. It is a place where people who are online can act as netizens in the sense that the concept originated from, as net.citizens who participate to nourish and support the development of the Net as a public sphere in the form outlined by Habermas, where rational public communication is supported and thrives. The Internet makes such active collaboration and communication possible.

Netizens in South Korea are pioneers in exploring how the Internet can help them to create new democratic forms and institutions.

South Korea is a leader in the world in making high-speed Internet access available to a large sector of the population. South Korea also has a proud history of struggle and action on the part of many people to win democracy.

On the surface the current struggle in South Korea is against the agreement made by the government under US pressure to import the parts of beef that raise health concerns not only among the South Korean public but also among people in other countries, such as Japan and those of the European Union. The current struggle is asking for the resignation of a government that could make such an agreement.

As my recent visit to South Korea in April and May demonstrated, however, the underlying problem is a form of electoral system that offers the population a choice of candidates, whoever they are, but who once elected treat the people as if they are only their subjects rather than their sovereigns. How do the people of South Korea create a means to exercise oversight over their government?

The candlelight demonstrations are showing that the people have a voice and that they want their voice to be heard: "It's 'democracy' they are shouting," explains the editorial in Hankyoreh. Along with the demonstrations, there is the Internet and the netizens.

Democracy involves people watching what their leaders do and complaining in a way that is heard when what is being done is not desired. It also means the people are active in defining the form of society they want and how it is to be created. The events of the past months demonstrate that South Korean citizens and netizens are building on their proud democratic traditions to create more democracy as they continue the struggle represented by the victory of June 10, 1987.
An earlier version of this appeared in my blog at taz: netizenblog.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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