My aunt calls to tell me: let’s meet at Jongro-3ga. My eyes linger on the faces of those boarding the 1-train with me at Si-Chung Station, wondering if we share a common destination. The late-autumn air bites with the tang of anticipation, and I recall the expected numbers scrolling across the television this morning as I lay in the jjimjilbang with my grandmother, eyes squinting to see without my glasses.
As I sat together with halmoni, splitting a tangerine and strawberry yogurt, she sighed. “It’s so dangerous to gather in such large groups,” she said, eyes fixed on the news anchor telling us that as many as a million people are expected to show. “I can’t believe people are putting their lives at risk.”
I brushed from my mind thoughts of the incriminatory texts in my locker by the baths as I peeled two slices of the tangerine apart, giving one to halmoni, straining to hear the muted voice of the news anchor. A historical moment.
My grandmother shakes her head again. “Her father, Park Chung Hee—he did great things for our nation.” She folds the foil yogurt cover into a spoon, scooping strawberry yogurt into her mouth. “It’s so unfortunate about his daughter. But going into the streets . . . .”
The fear reminds me of my history teacher on Friday as she told us about the Gwangju Uprising, adding, “I sat at home last weekend, worrying these protests will become violent, as they did thirty years ago,” and I feel my throat catch, because I know my grandmother remembers Gwangju and she remembers the June Struggle and she remembers farther back, too, to the 6.25 War.
But the past weeks had been nonviolent, and so I texted my aunt, asking to go with her to Gwanghwamun. She’d told me to text her back when I left the jjimjilbang with my grandmother, and then had called to tell me where to meet. All these moments are churning through me, and I cling to the warmth of the jjimjilbang with my grandmother in the pit of my stomach as I sway with the lurching train towards the candlelight.
These past few weeks, in evaluating the actions of the president, people have been returning to two lines from the Constitution: Article 1.2, which states that “The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people,” and Article 7.1, which states that “All public officials shall be servants of the entire people and shall be responsible to the people.”
The word for the Constitution, 헌법, comes from the Sino-Korean roots “憲” meaning “law” and “法” meaning “law”—a contrast to the American word “Constitution,” which suggests more something that is drawn up intentionally of several parts, composed by human hands, rather than an absolute, fundamental law.
The irony of the idea of a “law” “law” is perhaps best exemplified by Korea’s Second Constitutional Amendment, also known as the “Sasaoib” (Integer-Rounding) Amendment. In 1954, there was a National Assembly vote to remove the term restriction on the first president. In order for a constitutional amendment to pass, a two-thirds majority of the 203 Assemblymen in office needed to vote in the affirmative. Two-thirds of 203 is 135.3̅3̅3̅ (repeated), which makes 136 votes necessary for a two-thirds majority. But only able to secure 135 affirmative votes, the ruling party decided with the support of the Korean Mathematical Society’s head that one should use integer math to round down, making 135 votes count as a two-thirds majority, thus enabling Syngman Rhee to legally cling to his office in perpetuity.
This was the original functioning of Korea’s Constitution.
As I hurtle towards Jongro-3ga, signs of the gathering begin making their way onboard. Students wearing headbands with plastic tealight candles fixed atop their heads. Parents guarding children who clutch signs and candles nestled in cups, trying to impart early lessons about democracy. My phone buzzes as I connect to subway station Wi-fi, and I pull up KakaoTalk to find that my classmate has messaged me. there r so many ppl! ive been here since 1 and i jist followed th crowd until i cld get into paris baguette but now i dont kno wht street im on and my phone is at 1% and im going 2 miss night hagwon too. where r u?
going 2 meet my aunt but if u know where u r maybe we can meet u? can u charge ur phone? find ur way to the nearest train station? I step onto the platform of Jongro-3ga, taking the stairs up—and then there are people all around me, those heading for the subway and those heading for the outside, and the walls are lined by people waiting for the bathroom—mothers and grandmothers and children and high schoolers in school uniform.
I follow the signs to exit 7, but as I approach, a subway worker wielding a flashlight shouts at me and those around me: “Exit through these stairs is not permitted! You can go out exit 5, or go back towards the subway.”
Exit 5 is where I had just come from, is the exit nearest where I had gotten out from the train level, but I head back, phone pressed to my mouth, telling my aunt, “Exist seven is blocked. I’m going out exit five.”
“Find your way to exit seven,” she says, hanging up.
I follow the feet in front of me up the stairs, onto street level—and it is then, looking around, that I find myself caught in a current and realize that This is what a crowd looks like.
My decade as a New Yorker has not prepared me for the people packing the streets. We are the street, sidewalk to sidewalk, hands cupping candles and calling out in unison: “Park Geun-Hye ha-ya ha-ra! Dang-jang toe-jin ha-ra!” My eyes roam hungrily across the crowd, seeking a subway entrance with a “7” emblazoned on it, and I find it, on the far side of the sea, just as everybody around me begins to sit.
see u soon! I text back, sitting cross-legged with the crowd around me. I cannot figure out how to make my way through the street without stepping on feet or hands or pushing those around me, so I decide to lose myself to this crowd, if only for a moment. We are not shouting, or pushing, or speaking. Just sitting in this silence, in this stillness, and I feel the power between me and my neighbors, in the lights they are holding, as I am one among a million, and I wish for my own candlelight to cup my hands around. And then there is a woman shouting, “The procession is continuing towards the Blue House,” and people are standing, and in the rush, I push my way towards my aunt—on the other end of the sea, waiting for me.
Finally I see her, and she reaches for me—arms open in a hug, the niece she sees not often enough, as she whispers, “Your mom would kill me if she knew you were here.”
The impeachment of a president through popular protest in Korea does not lack precedence. In 1960, in what we now remember as the April 19th Revolution, a hundred thousand protesters marched to the Blue House demanding the resignation of Korea’s first president—US-backed dictator Syngman Rhee. The police opened fire on civilians, killing hundreds. When Syngman Rhee finally stepped down, the U.S. flew him to Hawaii, where he lived unremarkably until he passed away.
It wasn’t until this past winter, when I went in search of the 4.19 National Memorial, that I realized it was the same park in Suyu-ri I had gone to play in with my grandmother when I was a child. Seeing the flowers and Korean flags marking each tombstone, I had thought at the time that the rows and rows of headstones at the edge of the park belonged to military veterans or soldiers, like my grandfather—it was only now that, returning, I read them for the first time. They were college students, barely older than I was, unexceptional other than in that they had hoped for a better country and died at the hands of their government.
As we walk together towards Gwanghwamun, my aunt buys us each a candle for two thousand won, from one of the dozens of sellers lining the streets. “Be careful not to tip it—the paper cup might burn,” the man who hands me mine warns. As my aunt and I link arms, each holding a light, I cannot help the smile breaking across my face. I am angry; I am sad; both are reasons why I am here—but being here, among fellow Koreans, hands cupping my candlelight, I imagine our years of shared history behind us as a bond tying us together to this one place.
The crowd grows thicker as we approach the square, and amidst the plummeting temperatures a girl passes me a stack of hand warmers, telling me to take one and pass it.
We pass screen after screen—massive Samsungs and LGs set up in the street, with people clustered before each. Vans, too—from JTBC, from OhmynewsTV, from KBS and SBS and every station under our sun. Major opposition political parties have bought out blocks of bus and plane tickets for people to come up from the countryside or fly in from as far as Jeju Island. Groups pass, waving flags and shouting. There are no signs of the disunity and national disagreement that will become the next presidential election, as the same people who fought alongside each other for the impeachment fight for the right to become the face of a new era. My aunt steers me from those headed for the Blue House, murmuring, “If anything violent happens, it’ll probably be there.”
And then, suddenly, we can go no further. Ahead of us is a wall of people, and I realize that the people I saw before were only the outskirts of the crowd: now I have reached the edge of the center, from which I can see only bodies ahead of me, spilling out in all directions, further than the furthest reaches of my eye. I understand now my friend when she said she did not know where she was, that she could not see any street signs, that all she saw were people and people and people until she ducked into a bakery. As I realize why my aunt had told me to meet a fifteen-minute walk away from the Gwanghwamun station, voices rise around me in song.
You call this a country? You call this a country?
Den of treacherous thieves Geun-hye, Soon-sil, Myung-bak
Heaven for criminals; hell for everyday men;
We can stand it no longer.
Ha-ya ha-ya ha-ya ha-ya hayuh-ra.
Park Geun-Hye reul dang-jang ha-ya hayuh-ra
Ha-ok ha-ok ha-ok ha-ok hayuh-ra.
Park Geun-Hye reul ha-ok shikyuh-ra.
I do not yet know these lyrics—although as the months of protests continue this song is one of many I will come to know as muscle memory, songs that make my throat catch and my eyes water as I remember what it was like to stand in Gwanghwamun Square that winter. These are songs I will only ever remember as protest songs, because I heard them first at Gwanghwamun: The Rain and You (비와 당신); Youthful You (젊은 그대); Don’t Worry Dear (걱정 말아요 그대); The Truth Does Not Sink/Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light (진실은 침몰하지 않는다/어둠은 빛을 이길 수 없다); Arirang Mokdong (아리랑 목동) . . . .
As we walk back to the subway, my aunt gives her candle to a person on their way to Gwanghwamun, and they thank her, and she thanks them.
In the weeks to come, my feet will lead me further into the crowd, shoulder-to-shoulder with those around me, energy pulsating between us, fumes from vendors selling bbundaegi heavy in the air as I wave the reusable LED candle my aunt has ordered for me online.
Half a dozen songs take shape in my mouth as I think of my high school teachers who have denounced Park Chung-hee for his authoritarian rule, Park Geun-hye on her government-created history textbook policy, which would erase the memory of the Jeju Massacre, and the bribing of university officials for Choi Soon-sil’s daughter’s education. Every week there is more news of the corruption spiraling out from Park Geun-hye’s administration, despite her having been the only president to have won the nation’s democratic elections with an absolute majority of the vote. Of course, months later, evidence surfaces also of the previous president tasking the national intelligence agency with the role of ensuring that Park Geun-hye would win the next election, ensuring the party’s maintenance of power.
I buy gloves from the subway station on my way home from Gwanghwamun, as I realize an LED will not keep my fingers from the chill.
December 3, 2016—the Saturday before the verdict of the 9th. The day of the two million. My aunt and I eat spicy mushroom kalguksu near the National Assembly building before we head over to the subway. There had been protests in front of the Assembly all morning, but we are headed again to Gwanghwamun. My mother has given me her blessing today, told my aunt to take care of me, said, “Be there for me! It isn’t about you, but it’s about your body, on the street, making one of two million.”
All together, let us sing:
We dreamt without regret;
Things that have passed have meaning,
As things that have passed.
That day, we walk from Eljiro-3ga station, and people are passing out flyers with the contact information for members of the National Assembly, telling us to please contact our representatives, to pressure them into bowing before the will of the nation.
My fingers clench as I pass a Caucasian man in the street waving a Korean flag and shouting “Korea man-sae!” This battle is neither his to mock nor his to claim. I sit among rows and rows of people, candlelights cupped in our palms, and those without pull up images of candles on their phones, holding before them the light. We join in the Korean history of democratic uprising, stretching back to before Rhee’s ousting from office, to the independence fighters of March 1st, and we are crying, and I am crying, because people have been coming out every Saturday for the past several months, and those unable to make it to Gwanghwamun have been making it out to the centers of their own towns. My Korean teacher who is pregnant told us she walked through her neighborhood with her baby with her candle held high knowing that her daughter will be born into this country, and that if the National Assembly turns on us on the ninth and does not impeach, we will be left in the throes of a crumbling nation.
In the days between the third and the ninth, whenever I pass people on the street or meet eyes with passing strangers on the subway, I find myself wondering, Were you there with me this Saturday? Last Saturday? Is it so tiring for you to wake up each day with your head held high and move forward towards an unknown? Did your grandparents go out in anti-protest, demanding that President Park be kept in office? Can you imagine us as a hopeful nation?
“President” in Korea was not originally meant to mean “democratically elected.” Even after Syngman Rhee’s impeachment, his legacy of election fraud and constitutional amendment with the purpose of securing his next term in office remained the norm. Changes in ruling party were violent—most notable being the 1961 Coup d’etat by which Park Geun-hye’s father Park Chung-hee seized power and the 1979 Coup d’etat by which Chun Doo-hwan took over following Park Chung-hee’s assassination.
Both periods of rule were marked by the presidents’ violent quashing of dissent—as well as conversely, the ongoing uprisings led by labor organizers and college students. The 1979 Bu-Ma Democratic Protests, demanding the end of Park Chung-hee’s dictatorial Yushin regime. The May 18th Gwangju Uprising, which many call “Korea’s Tiananmen Square”—when in response to the declaration of martial law and the shutting down of universities nationwide, college students in Gwangju took to the streets to demand that Chun Doo-hwan step down, and paratroopers and military forces stationed at the 38th Parallel were sent to quash what the government labelled a Communist uprising.
It wasn’t until 1987 that Korea’s democratic constitution was put in place, the year before my parents entered college. In the months leading up to it, two students at two of Korea’s top universities—Park Jong-chul and Yi Han-yeol—became rallying points for the public: Park Jong-chul had been a student at Seoul National University who, despite never having himself participated in protests, was arrested and interrogated by the police regarding the whereabouts of an upperclassman friend and protest leader who had vanished to evade arrest. The police returned Park’s body to his family, claiming that they had hit a desk and the boy had keeled over of a heart attack. It soon became clear the student had been water-tortured. Yi Han-yeol was a Yonsei University student who had been protesting in the streets when he was hit in the face by a tear gas canister, and a month later, he passed away.
I visited the Yi Han-yeol memorial that winter, a small two-floor display tucked into a side-street in Sinchon, where video footage of that winter’s candlelight vigils played beside glass cases showing the materiality of the boy when he was hit: the white sneakers; the Yonsei jersey; the tattered pants. On audio loop was a song that had filled the streets that winter, a song that had become popularized during the protests in response to the Sewol Ferry sinking of 2014: “The Truth Does Not Sink.”
Darkness cannot overcome the light;
Lies cannot overcome the truth;
The truth does not sink;
We do not give up.
There is a 1983 Korean short story called “Sapyeong Station” by Lim Chul-woo, describing the people waiting for a train in the midst of snowfall. The cranky old man; the middle-aged ex-convict who is on his way to see whether the mother of the friend he met in prison is still alive; the former college student who was going to fulfill his parents’ every dream, until he was expelled for participating in democratic uprisings.
The student went home to see his parents, but could not bear to tell them what had happened, and so now is headed back away from home, waiting for the train in the middle of a snowfall. This past winter, high school seniors were out on the streets in the weeks leading up to the Suneung (college entrance exam), proclaiming that as youth invested in their futures, they could only invest also in this voice calling for a different future.
When the National Assembly votes to impeach, it is as if the world has finally let out the breath it had been holding, even though it can still only be the beginning. We must continue fighting for the Constitutional Court’s confirmation, and even after, know that change is contingent upon the results of the new election and the new candidates’ ability to uphold campaign promises and the nation’s ability to keep moving forward.
My history teacher reminds us to be grateful for those students from 4.19 to Gwangju to the June Struggle who fought for us to have this democracy. My father reminds me that protest in his college years was violent—that he most definitely remembers throwing rocks at and running from the police; that that was simply “what college students did.” Especially at a place like Seoul National University, where students imagined the future of the country was in their hands, and that as responsible, upstanding citizens, they would have to go out onto the streets for the fight.
The afternoon of the day the Constitutional Court confirms Park’s impeachment, I am in Namdaemun Market with my aunt, who buys pink hair curlers to match the judge who had delivered the verdict confirming the former president’s guilt. The acting chief justice Lee Jung-mi, swamped by the hectic mess of the morning, had been caught by the paparazzi leaving the house with two pink hair rollers left in. After the impeachment, images of the woman that every mother wanted to raise her daughter to be had gone viral, hair curlers and all.
Today, I think back to the Gwanghwamun winter and of how far our nation has left to build. Of how every fifth spring, come the presidential election, I will be reminded of this year that permanently changed the season of our election from fall to spring.
Did it really happen? Was I really there? I find myself wondering, an ocean away now in my Ivy League classroom, watching the stoic day-to-day of the nation in the face of Trump’s aggression towards North Korea. As I watch the implementation of THAAD and Trump’s rhetoric grow increasingly violent, I think of the Kim Kwang-kyu poem “Faint Shadows of Old Love,” in which old friends who marched together in the 4.19 Revolution meet again eighteen years later with neckties and jobs—now part of the old generation, now afraid of revolution. They are no longer singing. As they exchange their new phone numbers and gossip; as they split to play poker and dance, the wind asks: “부끄럽지 않은가 / 부끄럽지 않은가.” Aren’t you ashamed? Aren’t you ashamed?
Jennifer Lee studies computer science at Columbia University and tweets @robotslikemars