In December, South Korea witnessed how a massive wave of peaceful candlelight rallies led to President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment over a corruption scandal.
While the nation awaits the Constitutional Court’s final decision on Park’s fate, there is another group of people determined to take to the streets to make their voices heard -- Park’s staunch supporters.
On Saturday, thousands of them -- 1.2 million according to an organizers' tally which seems grossly inflated -- gathered in central Seoul to oppose the impeachment of the conservative leader.
Braving subzero temperatures, they --- mostly senior citizens from ultraright organizations and Protestant groups -- waved national flags and sang national anthems near Daehakno and Cheonggye Stream.
“President Park was framed, the claims against her are completely fabricated, and the so-called candlelight vigils are led by politically far-left firebrands who hardly represent the right sentiment of the public,” said Park Je-hoon, 76, during the rally in Daehakno. “We won’t let them destroy our country.”
Kim Seon-gi, 75, criticized media reports for depicting the candlelit protestors as representing the Korean people as a whole.
“I could not sit back at home anymore, as those who sympathize with North Korea are stirring up young students and women to overturn the country. I am worried our country will be sold off to (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un,” he said.
Since the Dec. 9 impeachment, many Park sympathizers have been visibly angry, desperate and sometimes aggressive, disparaging political circles, the media and even the authorities.
Although increasingly mobilized, they are hopelessly outnumbered, polls show. Public support of Park stood at just 4 percent, according to the latest available Gallup Korea survey conducted before her impeachment,
“The independent counsel is too biased against the president. The tablet PC is a fake,” said Choi Yoo-young, 75, questioning the neutrality of the ongoing investigation by Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo into the presidential scandal and the validity of a key piece of evidence.
The device, supposedly owned by Park’s longtime friend Choi Soon-sil and obtained by a local TV channel, was what ignited the scandal in late October.
“If the Constitutional Court follows the Constitution, the impeachment will be rejected,” said the pro-Park protestor.
Rep. Kim Jin-tae of the conservative ruling Saenuri Party took to a makeshift podium to defend Park’s actions during the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. Her lack of response during the disaster, which resulted in over 300 dead or missing, is one of the key reasons behind her impeachment.
“Park’s lawyers submitted a document detailing what she did by the minute. She received 19 briefings and gave seven instructions. What on earth is wrong about it? The president spent 20 minutes doing her hair, but is it that a long time for a woman?”
Choi Myung-jin, a priest who was collecting applications for Saenuri Party membership, criticized the Barun Party, a new conservative splinter group, for ditching President Park. The party was founded by former Saenuri members in an apparent attempt to break away from Park and her loyalists amid the scandal.
“The Saenuri Party should stand strong to make a ‘new’ Korea ruled by the law,” said Choi. “We are determined to participate more in the upcoming rallies to protect our country.”
Park loyalists’ self-proclaimed fight to protect the president came to the fore last week, when the police announced that the turnout of their rally on Jan. 7 had exceeded that of an anti-Park protest on the same day.
According to the much-disputed police estimate, about 37,000 pro-Park protestors gathered, while the 11th candlelight vigil demanding Park’s ouster drew 24,000 people.
The anti-Park rally organizers have denounced it as “a politically motivated attempt” to undervalue the candlelit protests in favor of Park’s supporters, citing that the chief of the Seoul National Agency Lee Chul-sung was appointed by the president.
Amid the intensifying controversy, police dismissed the claims, saying, “We apply the same standards (when measuring the number of participants at every rally.)” The police declared they would stop releasing their tally of protestors.
Behind the growing pro-Park rallies are many fervent conservatives who feel threatened by the collapse of the conservative administration, experts said.
“Part of the reason behind the rise of the pro-Park rallies is that the anti-government candlelight vigils have lost momentum after the passage of the impeachment bill,” said Han Kyu-sup, a journalism professor at Seoul National University.
“Another reason is that the fall of conservative President Park is seen by senior citizens as an attempt to deny their generation all together,” he said, pointing out that the older generation made up Park’s core support base.
“The rallies might trigger more conservative voters to head to the ballot box in the upcoming presidential election.”
Bae Jong-chan, chief director at Research & Research, said that once the presidential race begins, Park’s supporters will be more actively mobilized.
“Park’s supporters are likely to hold more active and aggressive pro-government rallies to bring conservative leadership to the next government,” he said.
But Yoon Hee-woong, a senior researcher at Opinion Live, said pro-Park protestors’ active engagement in rallies could also be a bane for the conservative bloc.
“Such rallies could also give a bad image to conservative presidential hopefuls since Park’s approval rating is the lowest ever amid the corruption scandal,” Yoon said.
By Ock Hyun-ju and Bak Se-hwan (email@example.com