By Russell Burge
Images of Seoul filter fitfully into American media, and when they do the city often serves as a backdrop for discussions of foreign policy or North-South Korean relations. More rarely do Americans glimpse another aspect of Seoul that South Koreans know all too well: its venerable history as a site of public protest.
This history was on vivid display in the autumn and winter of last year, as over a million people took to the streets of the city in a “candlelight vigil” to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. To some, this period may already feel like a distant memory—especially following the missile crisis of 2017 and the political theater of the Pyeongchang Olympics—but in South Korea the Seoul-based demonstrations were part of a nationwide protest movement that helped accelerate the impeachment of the president and prompt a transfer of the presidency from the ruling Saenuri Party to the opposition Democratic Party of Korea.
By coincidence I was present for these protests in my first year of dissertation fieldwork, as marches overtook the city and protesters congregated in the central area of Gwanghwamun Plaza, a wide space that has come to increasingly function as a kind of town square for South Korea. In a gathering filled with music, political props, costumes, and families, protesters chanted haya, haya (“step down, step down”). Meanwhile, in a microcosm of civil society, rival protests nearby gathered under the South Korean flag and called to uphold the constitution and save the country from opposition leader Moon Jae-in, cast by some civic groups as a North Korean agent. In true South Korean fashion, both protests were lined by flanks of riot police and chabyeok, or rows of police vehicles that formed literal barriers across city streets.
My one encounter with the riot police was both ironic and unexpected, coming as it did after I attended a student event held by Seoul National University. Having been released from the event after dark and on the wrong side of the barriers, we emerged into a neighborhood that consisted of a maze of alleyways, many of them restored to resemble a vision of Korea’s royal past. Under tiled roofs and with the guidance of police officers – many of them conscripted young men who were themselves university age – we were patiently led through the chabyeok cordon and emerged finally into the main theater of the protest, a coursing river of candlelight pulsing with music. The experience was filtered through multiple layers of protection and privilege – our affiliation with an elite South Korean university, my own identity as a white American – but still appeared quite different from the Orwellian spectacle police presented in the crackdown of the 2015 protests, when remotely manned CCTV units (part of the Seoul police force which operates under the umbrella of the National Police Agency, the KNPA) were equipped with water cannonsand pepper spray to disperse the protests in Gwanghwamun. One protester was killed; indeed, speculation over the perceived sympathy or acquiescence of the police was a major leitmotif of discourse around the candelight protests of late 2016 and early 2017.
My own research focuses on the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s, but the history of meaningful protest in the city dates back much further, and coincides with the history of Korean urbanization. Under the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) the major protest movements were agrarian. Indeed, it was a millenarian peasant-based movement that nearly toppled the monarchy and sparked the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Still, Seoul was at the center of many of the more raucous responses to modernity in the 1890s and played home to what writer Isabella Bird Bishop famously termed its “gusts of popular feeling.”
As the extractive economies of Japanese colonialism (1910-1945) mandated the building up of ports and infrastructure, Seoul’s position at the center of an urban network only grew. It is partly for this reason that in 1919 the city became the starting point and nucleus of the most storied mass movement in Korean history: the March First Movement, a two-month-long series of protests against Japanese colonial rule that is still a major touchstone in both North and South Korean official history. The March First Movement did not end Japanese colonialism, but, after months of bloody crackdowns by colonial police, it did change its inflection and guiding policies. It even helped to inspire China’s May Fourth Movement. Thus was inaugurated a tradition of urban-based protest that continues to this day.
In 1960, urban protest toppled a sitting Korean government for the first time. The origins of these protests are complex, but the major spark came in the southeastern port city of Masan, following the death of a high school freshman at the hands of police during an anti-government protest. When the protests spread to Seoul they took on new life, as university students and faculty joined in the melee against the South Korean government. The April Revolution, as the 1960 protests came to be called, proved to have a mixed legacy. The following year military officers staged a coup by seizing the major branches of government in Seoul; the leaders also deemed their own movement a revolution, and claimed to represent the spirit of the students who had taken to the streets in 1960. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, as South Korea moved into a long period of industry-first authoritarianism, cities would become important staging grounds to express grievances and anti-government resistance. The darkest moment in this era of urban protest came in 1980, when protests in the southwestern city of Gwangju were put down with mass bloodshed at the hands of ROK armed forces.
As the Pyeongchang Olympics draw to a close, it seems timely to note that when South Korea last held the Olympics –the 1988 Seoul Summer Games – a very different kind of political theater unfolded. In the leadup to those Games millions of South Koreans took to the streets to protest the continuation of authoritarian rule by the clique led by then-president Chun Doo-hwan. With international media laser-focused on Seoul and South Korea, the Chun administration – which relied in no small part on American support for its continued existence – chose to capitulate to key demands of the democratization movement and held elections the following year. The fateful decision, still decried by hardliners on the left and the right, brought about the gradual end of authoritarian rule in South Korea and created the democratic mechanisms that govern the country today.
In 2018 the greater Seoul area is home to half of all South Koreans; by some measures, the city constitutes the second-largest metropolitan area in the world. Just as Americans have come to recognize the outsized role that rural districts and voters play in their own politics, South Koreans must contend with the outsized role of their capital city in their political discourse and protest culture. Far more than providing gusts of popular feeling, these urban spaces now help to set the national mood, and to shape the course of national and regional politics.
Featured image at top: Rally outside Seoul City Hall in commemoration of the life of Yi Hanyŏl, a Yonsei University student killed in anti-government protests. Photo from Tonga ilbo, July 9, 1987, page 10. Accessed through Seoul Photo Archive and reproduced according to the terms of the Korea Open Government License.
Russell Burge is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, where he focuses on modern Korea. His dissertation examines the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s.
 In the English-speaking expatriate community in South Korea, Bishop’s turn of phrase has been popularized by a blog of the same name by Canadian commentator Matt Van Volkenburg.