SOUTH KOREA: ‘Achieving victory by our own hands'

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Gayoon Baek, South Korean civil society activist, co-representative of Jeju Dark Tours and former coordinator of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, about what has changed for civil society following South Korea’s dramatic 2017 ‘Candlelight Revolution’, which led to the ousting of President Park Geun-hye, and what challenges South Korean civil society still faces.

What do you think people learned from the Candlelight Revolution?

For the last nine years when we had a conservative government, people felt that even though they protested over and over again, especially workers, nothing changed. For people who work in rights, we hadn’t had much experience of winning something.

But from the experience of 2017 people realised that if they all stand up together something can really change. Many people now are aware that once they are gathered together on the streets they can actually change something. This feeling of having achieved victory by our own hands will teach people that if you want to have some changes, you have to do something. This is something we did as a democracy and something we achieved with our own hands. Experiencing this makes a lot of difference. I think this will bring changes in the future when we have social issues to act on.

How have the changes in government impacted on South Korean civil society?

Civil society has changed a lot. At the time of the protests, some of the public who were participating distrusted civil society organisations (CSOs): they thought that CSOs wanted to maintain the old style of protests, characterised by union groups shouting the same slogans. Instead, people were very creative, holding concerts, being artistic, with a different format from the standard kind of protests that activists usually held. CSOs created innovative ways to conduct a campaign and protest. The protests were a platform for people to voice their different needs from different perspectives.

As civil society, it was easier for us to work together because we had a common goal. We had a lot of support from the public, including donations. They saw CSOs as fighting on their behalf.

Government agencies changed their attitude after the election. The day after the election results were published government ministries contacted CSOs and wanted to have a meeting with us. Before they hadn’t wanted to talk to us or include us as a partner. So it was a positive, that they wanted to talk to civil society groups. Now we have more opportunities to be able to talk and negotiate with the government. But at the same time it shows we are dependent on who is in the administration. There is not systematic dialogue, so when we have a bad administration it will go backwards again.

Now many former civil society members have joined the new president’s team. So now when it comes to advocacy and lobbying, we are having to do this with our former friends, which is difficult for both of us. So on the surface there are more opportunities, but when you go deeper, it can be more complicated. Their broad positions are similar to those of civil society, but when you go into details, and at the level of implementation, it’s quite different.

But from the public’s point of view, because it seems quite similar, there’s now no need to support civil society. Some people have let their membership of CSOs lapse.

South Korean CSOs depend on individual membership payments and donations, especially when they don’t get donor funding or funding from the state. This is how they’re able to sustain themselves. And now some people have seen that success has been achieved and they don’t want to donate any more. Also often people want to make a donation directly to the victims of human rights violations, but not to the organisations working for those victims. Many small organisations are really struggling now. Many activists are suffering from financial difficulties because of this.

Many in civil society feel that all the momentum within civil society has dissipated since the Candlelight Revolution. Many people think our role is over somehow because we have a new government. There are also a lot of groups that are very supportive of the new president, and some of these are quite extreme. They feel invested in the new president, having helped bring him to power. And people say that at the beginning, you have to encourage the new president and government instead of criticising them. But civil society should play a watchdog role regardless of the administration.

How would you evaluate the government’s progress so far, and what key challenges remain unaddressed?

When we go to international forums such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, other people have a high expectation now of how this government will act, because they know it was established through people power. So they think this government will do a better job than the previous government. But given these high expectations, from a civil society perspective the government’s progress on human rights so far is quite disappointing. Even though there is some progress, when it comes to acting on recommendations from the UN, not much has changed.

The first big problem is the lack of effort to enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination act. This recommendation has been made over and over again. The UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights reviewed South Korea in 2017 and gave the government an 18-month deadline to come up with an action plan to implement an anti-discrimination act, but so far this has not happened. It is still a taboo to talk about LGBTI people and sexual minority issues in politics and politicians still use discriminatory speech.

Second is its position on disarmament. We appreciate the government’s efforts to develop a good relationship with North Korea. Everyone is happy about that. Once we solve the problem with North Korea many human rights problems in South Korea will be solved as well. We have a draconian national security law that has been used to crack down on human rights defenders and violate the freedom of expression, under the name of having an enemy in North Korea.

Yet at the same time, in 2017 the government still decided to deploy the USA’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in Seongju, arguing that it was needed to deter attacks from North Korea. Even though the relationship with North Korea has become better, the government has not yet withdrawn the project. They also wanted to have a naval fleet at Gangjeong village, where the villagers have fought against the establishment of a naval base for more than 10 years. So it was hard to understand how the government could say it wanted to have a good relationship with North Korea on the one hand while at the same time seeking to expand its military capabilities on the other.

Third is the refugee crisis happening recently on Jeju Island, when around 500 Yemeni refugees came into Korea. They applied for refugee status. But Korean society is not very open to other ethnicities. For example, when people come in from South-East Asia to live in the country, they are taught how to assimilate Korean habits, rather than us accept a different culture.

In this case, within a few days there was a petition signed by 800,000 people against accepting the refugees. Instead of declaring that under international law it would accept the refugees, the government’s response was to say they would tighten the refugee screening process, verify who are the real refugees compared to the fake ones, and expand its patrol system. That is disappointing from a human rights perspective.

The government has shown no ability to control hate speech and prevent extreme right-wing religious groups from organising. There are far-right evangelical groups protesting against proposals for an anti-discrimination act and they closely work with the conservative media. They are very organised and also lobby hard against LGBTI rights and refugee rights. CSOs working on human rights receive so many threatening calls from these groups.

Another recent concerning example came following the mass dismissal of workers by the SsangYong Motor Co in 2009. After a 10-year dispute it has agreed to rehire those who were dismissed. But 30 ex-workers had committed suicide during this time. When in 2018 the workers tried to set up a memorial altar to their colleagues who had recently died, conservative groups organised a protest, using abusive language and singing abusive songs at people mourning the death of their colleagues. But the authorities did nothing.

So when it comes to preventing and punishing hate speech, we don't have any system. This goes back to the lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination act. It’s disappointing that the government is failing to protect the human rights of marginalised groups.

In summary, on the one hand there are positives, but on the other there is still more to be done if this is to be called a government that is established with people power.

What would you like to see the government doing more of?

The government should be reminded that Koreans are able to impeach the president if they are not happy with the leadership of the government. The government is happy to be in power, but they may forget who they represent. They shouldn’t forget that they were able to gain their position only because people supported them. They should not only be having a dialogue with civil society but also thinking about the ways they can implement the human rights pledges they made during the protests and the election. That is one of the ways they can make themselves distinct from the previous administration.

Finally, what is your message to international civil society in relation to South Korea?

I don’t want international civil society to lose interest in South Korea because most of the activists detained under the previous regime have now been released and because the situation has improved, so now they feel they can pay their attention to another country where things are worse. It’s very easy for the situation to go backwards again.

Civic space in South Korea is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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