#1. Lee, 75, from Seocho-gu, Seoul, retired 18 years ago as the president of a subsidiary of a prominent computer firm in Korea. He stopped reading the newspapers and watching the news in late 2016. He does “not want to watch or read the news because there are too many reports on the candlelight rallies.” Instead, he goes to rallies himself. He has been to nine “anti-impeachment rallies”. Lee said, “I don’t go to the rallies because I support President Park Geun-hye. I’m just nervous and concerned that the candlelight rallies and this political situation are stirring everything up.”
#2. A, 74, from Bangbae-dong, Seoul, a retired professor from Seoul National University, said she recently deleted the contact information of a friend of 20 years. While A believed that “most participants at the candlelight rallies were paid to attend the rallies”, her friend thought that “participants at the Taegeukgi rallies were paid to attend them”. The two of them argued and ended up in a yelling match. A said, “I’m angry that someone as smart as my friend doesn’t know the truth.”
Taegeukgi rallies began at almost the same time the candlelight rallies started. People who opposed the impeachment of President Park and people who participate in the “Taegukgi rallies” are generally referred to as “Park-sa-mo” (“People who love President Park Geun-hye”), but this was not necessarily the case in our coverage. The news team for this newspaper interviewed 50 participants in and supporters of the rallies via phone, face-to-face conversations, or written correspondence. They openly disclosed their identity and contact information. They said they were “afraid and worried about the current state of affairs, in which the voices in the [Gwanghwamun] Square are dominating the nation.”
Fear of the Square
The 50 interviewees were of different ages and occupations, and from different parts of Korea, but most (38) were in their 70s and 80s, meaning that they were in their teens when the Korean War erupted in 1950. More than half of the interviewees (28) were college graduates, 12 of whom had studied abroad in Japan, the US, and other countries. Kim, 80, from Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, who had been a teacher all her life, said, “To a certain extent, I understand the younger generation going to the candlelight rallies. But I’m really concerned about the security of our nation. They wouldn’t be able to understand the war I experienced, no matter how much I told them. I can’t sleep for fear that the excitement and hysteria could lead to a war, that we might lose sight of the national security problem when everyone is focused on the square. That’s why I’ve been to two Taegeukgi rallies, even at my age.”
Kang Jeong-in, professor of political science at Sogang University, explained their views, saying that “the fear of endangering national security simplifies everything else”. “They tend to equate the people who are leading the candlelight rallies with the opposition party. For instance, when Moon Jae-in said he would visit North Korea before the United States if he is elected president, these people heard the language of the pro-North Korea group—in other words, they heard him saying he would compromise national security. And that triggers their resistance.” Gwak Geum-ju, professor of psychology at Seoul National University, pointed out that “to Koreans in their 80s, the concern over national security is akin to trauma from their own experiences. That is why the groundless rumors of North Korea being behind the candlelight rallies are spreading like wildfire among the elderly.” In her analysis, this fear obscures the positive roles of the square, namely freedom of expression and the rights of citizens.
“I dislike the candlelight more than the incompetent president”
Han, 72, from Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, who owns a screen golf business said, “The participants of the candlelight rallies never held a rally for the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan or for North Korea’s nuclear weapon issue. Doesn’t that mean that they’re voices from a certain group?” A former nutritionist, Hwang, 68, from Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, also expressed her concern that “the square politics represented by candlelight rallies are irrational and irresponsible”.
Kim Ui-yeong, professor of political science at Seoul National University, explained such sentiments as a “type of countermobility”. “To them, normal politics involve creating policies, institutions, and legislation through proper processes within the system. In contrast, the candlelight rallies are square politics. Since [square politics] are different from the established politics, they are scared of it. That’s why they reject the square politics and characterize the candlelight rally participants as ‘deviants’”, said Kim. In his analysis, their hostility to and worries about the candlelight rallies overcome their concerns regarding the president’s incompetence or Choi Sun-sil’s monopoly over government affairs. Na Jin-gyeong, professor of psychology at Sogang University, said, “When a person sees something and his brain tells him ‘I don’t like it’, then he becomes creative and begins to look for proof that can justify the decision he already made.”
People confirm what they want to believe
Park, 73, from Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, who worked for a conglomerate for 30 years and now runs a farm, enjoys watching Youtube channels like SesameTube and the Divine Move. Both are right-leaning internet TV shows. Park said, “When you watch these shows, you can see that the participants of the candlelight rallies actually belong to pro-North Korea groups and that the impeachment process was riddled with problems.” He also said that he tells his friends about the shows because more people need to know the truth.
An Do-gyeong, professor of political science at Seoul National University, said, “People want to confirm that their beliefs are true. This is called confirmation bias. [The rallies] are a phenomenon that originates from people’s consumption of news based on confirmation bias.” In other words, people selectively consume the news that they want to hear. An explained that this tendency has intensified in recent years regardless of political inclination. Kang Jeong-in added, “With the advent of the age of the internet, public opinion has become even more polarized than before. Instead of ‘broadcasting’, we now have ‘narrowcasting’. This is going to make intergenerational dialogue even more difficult.” Kim Hye-suk, professor of psychology at Ajou University also explained, “People who have long-held beliefs experience stress when others deny their beliefs. It’s natural for people to wish to avoid such stress and draw strength from people who agree with them. That is the reason people selectively look for and listen to news that suits their taste, regardless of whether it is true or false.”
How can we have levelheaded dialogue?
How then can the younger generation and the Taegeukgi generation communicate? “Everyone develops certain biases when they receive information”, Na Jin-gyeong explained. “It will help if people acknowledge that.” The first step is to let go of the conceit that “my beliefs are right”. Jeong Sang-jin, professor of sociology at Sogang University said, “Our society needs to think more about how to deal with the energy, the discontent and the anger of the Taegeukgi rally participants. There are groups that are using these people’s discontent and anger for their own political gain. There are groups that are spreading hatred against the elderly to incite an intergenerational fight. We should not let them waste their energy this way. It’s time we look beyond the divisive social climate and contemplate politics at a higher level.”