When the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592, King Seonjo of Joseon fled to north. He abandoned the people of capital city to the marauding Japanese troops. The majority of aristocrats also fled with the king. In contrast, the commoners, slaves, and even women ceaselessly volunteered to fight until Korea's victory in 1598.
Korea has suffered numerous foreign invasion since the time of immemorial. But what always made the situation worse for Koreans was the corrupt, incompetent leadership, disloyal to the very people that they serve. Nevertheless, the spirit of resistance that made Koreans stand against foreign invaders later become a seed for resistance against tyranny in the modern era.
Since 1945, Koreans have ousted their presidents three times. The April Revolution of 1960, was a first mass democratization movement in East Asia. People were sickened of the corrupt dictatorship of Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea. More than a hundred citizens, both old and young, were shot on the streets. But the people refused to go back to their homes. Rhee stepped down in the end.
The people's victory was soon trumped by a military coup occurred in 1961. The leader of the coup was General Park Chung-hee, the impeached President Park Geun-hye's father. He eventually became the strongman president who ruled South Korea for 18 years. Since it was the height of the Cold War, McCarthyism became a convenient tool fork Park. Numbers of activists, members of opposition party, and numbers of ordinary citizens were purposefully mislabeled as "commies." Thousands were tortured, killed, or went missing during his presidency.
General Chun Doo-hwan took power by coup shortly after Park Chung-hee's assassination. He imposed martial law, and hundreds died during the Gwangju uprising , a mass democratization movement in 1980. The spirit of resistance became vibrant once again in June, 1987. A university student was killed in a protest. Angered by the young student's death, the people flooded the streets. Although Chun was at the height of his power, it was impossible to detain thousands of people participating in a mass civil disobedience. Chun stepped down in February 1988.
Fast forward to 2016, a different kind of revolution occurred in South Korea. Unlike the mass demonstration of yesteryears, it is a bloodless revolution. But just like the ones occurred before, the movement was organized by the people, for the people. When the leaders have betrayed their people, and the opposition remained idle, ordinary citizens came out to the streets to condemn the corrupt, incompetent President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached by the National Assembly on December 9th.
Koreans had more than enough reason to go out to the streets. They are tired of insecurity and hardship. Opposition parties were often too busy fighting each other. Economy has worsen under Park Geun-hye. College students are overburdened with debt, and have little hope for finding a stable employment after graduation.
The scandal and stories of luxurious lifestyle of Choi Sun-sil and her daughter was what ignited the powder keg. But much of it has to do with the people finding out Park's true character. Park has shown that she lack empathy for the ordinary people. Stories of Park's whereabouts during the tragic Sewol ferry incident infuriated many Koreans. While hundreds of children were drowning inside the ferry, she was getting her hair done.
The 2016 "Candlelight Revolution" in South Korea carries a huge historical significance. Indeed, it was a rise of the people against the establishment. But unlike the political movement elsewhere, it was not fueled by xenophobia and hate. The revolution is fueled by people's desire to live in dignity. The revolution is not about destroying the system, but to press on the system to restore the rule of law and punish the wrongdoers.
The revolution has yet ended. Rather, it's only the beginning. People are still waiting for the constitutional court to impeach Park, and the prosecutor to send her and her friends behind bars. Still, what Koreans have achieved so far is already historic. The ordinary Koreans, flawed and imperfect, have accomplished what the exceptional few could not. What's more, they carry on the resistance without resorting to violence.
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