S Korea’s Park faces res­ig­na­tion calls at huge protest rally

An­gry ‘mil­lion’-strong protest de­mands ouster of Park

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Pres­sure on South Korea’s scan­dal-hit pres­i­dent to re­sign es­ca­lated sharply yes­ter­day, with or­ga­niz­ers claim­ing a mil­lion-strong turnout at one of the largest - and loud­est anti-gov­ern­ment protests the coun­try has ever wit­nessed. Chant­ing “Step down Park Geun-Hye!” enor­mous crowds, in­clud­ing high school stu­dents, Catholic nuns, la­bor­ers, farm­ers, re­tirees and young cou­ples with ba­bies, massed in the streets of cen­tral Seoul in a pow­er­ful dis­play of pop­u­lar anger and dis­sent.

While po­lice put the turnout at 260,000, or­ga­niz­ers said one mil­lion peo­ple took part in what was the third in a se­ries of weekly protests over a cor­rup­tion scan­dal that has left Park fight­ing for her political sur­vival. On the back of of­fi­cial ap­peals for calm, po­lice de­ployed around 25,000 of­fi­cers, many of them in full riot gear, while po­lice buses and trucks blocked ev­ery ac­cess road - ma­jor or mi­nor - around the pres­i­den­tial Blue House.

As night fell, Seoul’s main cer­e­mo­nial boule­vard Gwangh­wa­mun be­came a mov­ing river of flick­er­ing can­dles held by the ban­ner-wav­ing, slo­gan-chant­ing demon­stra­tors call­ing on Park to quit. “It was our wed­ding an­niver­sary yes­ter­day but we can­celled our an­niver­sary trip and came to Seoul be­cause we thought it was more im­por­tant for our daugh­ter,” said Cho Joo-Pyo, who came with his wife and their two-year-old.

Cho’s fam­ily had trav­elled from Jeonju, around 200 km south of Seoul - one of tens of thou­sands who trav­elled from cities across the coun­try to par­tic­i­pate in the big­gest antigov­ern­ment rally since the pro-democ­racy protests of the late 1980s.

Fraud and Scan­dal

The scan­dal en­gulf­ing Park for the past three weeks has fo­cused on her close friend, Choi Soon-Sil, who is cur­rently un­der ar­rest on charges of fraud and abuse of power. Pros­e­cu­tors are in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions that Choi, 60, lever­aged their friend­ship to co­erce do­na­tions from large com­pa­nies like Sam­sung to non-profit foun­da­tions which she set up and used for per­sonal gain. She is also ac­cused of in­ter­fer­ing in gov­ern­ment af­fairs, de­spite hold­ing no of­fi­cial po­si­tion.

Lurid re­ports of the un­healthy in­flu­ence Choi wielded over Park have seen the pres­i­dent’s ap­proval rat­ings plunge to five per­cent - a record low for a serv­ing pres­i­dent. And yes­ter­day’s rally was a fo­cal point for a litany of other com­plaints, from plung­ing rice prices to the gov­ern­ment’s han­dling of the 2014 Se­wol ferry dis­as­ter. One group dressed in tra­di­tional funeral gear car­ried a large “pres­i­den­tial cof­fin” cov­ered with a ban­ner read­ing: “Step down Park Geun-Hye, killer of agri­cul­ture, farms and farm­ers.”

The fam­ily-friendly protest was peace­ful but some­times reached deaf­en­ing vol­umes as per­form­ers and ac­tivists whipped the crowds into a rau­cous frenzy from a gi­ant stage. “We’re so close to the Blue House. Let her hear us roar!” yelled one speaker who was re­warded with a massed bel­low of ap­proval.

In an ef­fort to soothe pub­lic anger, Park has is­sued sev­eral pub­lic apolo­gies, voic­ing her per­sonal “heart­break” at be­ing the cause of such wide­spread anger and dis­tress. She has also reshuf­fled top of­fi­cials and even agreed to re­lin­quish some of her ex­ten­sive ex­ec­u­tive pow­ers, but the pop­u­lar calls for her to step down have been re­lent­less. “She has apol­o­gized but I don’t think it was sin­cere,” said col­lege stu­dent Ahn Ye-jin. “As Korean cit­i­zens, it is up to us to bring about change in this coun­try and that is why I am here to­day. Park has to go,” Ahn said.

Most ex­perts have sug­gested the pres­i­dent, who has just over a year left of her sin­gle five-year term, will be able to ride out the cri­sis and re­main in of­fice, al­beit with her au­thor­ity and abil­ity to gov­ern se­ri­ously un­der­mined. Op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers have largely avoided di­rect res­ig­na­tion calls and ap­pear more in­ter­ested in ex­tract­ing fur­ther con­ces­sions from Park in terms of de­volv­ing power to the leg­is­la­ture.

But the sheer size and vol­ume of yes­ter­day’s demon­stra­tion will be im­pos­si­ble to just ig­nore. “Judg­ing from what I saw to­day, peo­ple’s re­sent­ment against her is sim­ply too strong for Park to stare this down,” said Lee Yeon-Ho, a political sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Yon­sei Univer­sity. “Peo­ple are lit­er­ally seething with anger,” Lee said.— AFP

SEOUL: South Korean pro­test­ers hold up signs that read “Step down Park Geun-hye” dur­ing a rally call­ing for South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye to step down yes­ter­day. —AP

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