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Honoring the Candlelight Revolution in a Time of Looming War in Korea

By Jang Jinsook | September 17, 2017

Jang Jinsook, Director of Planning of the Minjung Party of South Korea, presented the following two-part speech at the People’s Congress of Resistance at Howard University in Washington, D.C., on September 16-17.

The Minjung Party (formerly called the New People’s Party) is a new progressive party that will formally launch on October 15. Its stated aim is to complete the “candlelight revolution” that ousted former President Park Geun-hye by unifying South Korean progressives and fighting for systemic change and the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.  This talk can also be viewed on KPI’s youtube channel.

Part 1: Urgent Tasks for South Korea’s Progressive Movement in a Time of Looming War Threats

North Korea Expands Its Theater of Operation to the Pacific

We are in the midst of renewed war threats between the United States and North Korea. The only thing that’s different from past tensions between the two countries is that the Korean peninsula is no longer the only place faced with the threat of becoming a battlefield. The U.S. mainland, too, is no longer sheltered from the threat of a nuclear strike.

What North Korea wants is genuine talks with the United States. It demands the United States cease the U.S.-ROK combined military exercises and abandon the idea of denuclearization as a precondition for talks. Absent such steps toward dialogue, North Korea, it appears, will not stop developing nuclear weapons and missiles, as these guarantee its survival. Determined that the United States should also feel the constant threat of war that has become normalized on the Korean peninsula, North Korea has threatened to surround the U.S. territory of Guam with a missile strike.

Despite North Korea’s warning, the United States went ahead with the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises in August and threatened military action, including a “preventive war” and a first strike. In response, North Korea conducted its first military exercise in the Pacific Ocean by launching the Hwaseong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), over Japan and hitting its mark in the North Pacific on August 29. The U.S. response was calling for stronger sanctions and threatening military action. On September 15, North Korea conducted its second Hwaseong-12 test-launch. This missile flew a greater distance than the first, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un praised the combat efficiency of the “strategic ballistic rocket” as “perfect.” What this means is that North Korea’s theater of operation has now expanded to the Pacific.

During his visit to the site of the second test-launch of the Hwaseong-12, Kim Jong-un reportedly said, in reference to the U.S. sanctions against North Korea, “How absurd that the so-called superpowers still believe they can force us to surrender through sanctions.”

The UN sanctions are, of course, painful for North Korea, but they cannot force the country to capitulate. That’s because North Korea experienced and survived even harsher isolation due to sanctions in the 1990s. That experience taught the country that the only way to survive U.S. aggression is to bolster its military strength and build a self-reliant economy that can withstand an economic embargo. And this is what North Korea has been preparing for the past ten years.

This is the history and the present reality. But the Trump administration continues to call for more and stronger sanctions. His administration really knows nothing about North Korea. If the current situation continues, the people of the United States will face the same chronic war threats that I and others on the Korean peninsula have faced all our lives.

The Dilemma of “Enveloping Fire” around Guam

North Korea’s threat of surrounding Guam with “enveloping fire” poses a growing dilemma for the United States.

According to international law, a North Korean missile strike around Guam cannot be construed as an act of war. What Kim Rak-gyom, the head of North Korea’s Strategic Rocket Forces, threatened on August 9 is not that North Korea would actually attack Guam, but that it would launch missiles into the international waters near Guam. Given that most countries with IRBMs have test-launched their missiles in international waters, North Korea’s action cannot be regarded an act of war.

Albeit legal according to international law, North Korea’s threat of an “enveloping fire” around Guam poses a political challenge to the United States.

The United States has repeatedly said it is reviewing plans to shoot down North Korean missiles if launched toward Guam. But as North Korea’s “enveloping fire” around Guam cannot be deemed an act of war according to international law, it does not constitute the legitimate grounds for a military attack on North Korea. By contrast, a U.S. military response to North Korea’s “enveloping fire” would be an act of war and, in turn, could justify a North Korean military attack. On the other hand, if the United States failed to shoot down North Korea’s missiles, it would be humiliated in the eyes of the international community.

This is what we are witnessing today. On September 15, the United States and Japan did not shoot down the Hwaseong-12 missile.

After every North Korean missile test, the United States and Japan warned, “If you do it again, we will shoot it down!” They announced that they had detected North Korea fueling its missile the day before the latest test-launch. But even as they watched the missile first being fueled, then flying over Hokkaido, Japan, and finally landing in the Pacific Ocean, they did nothing to intercept it. They just sat there staring at the missile’s trajectory.

A U.S. government official said the missile posed no threat to warrant interception. Even a passing dog would laugh at his statement. The U.S. government should be more honest. Shooting down the missile could trigger an all-out war, and failing while attempting to shoot it down would expose the ineffectiveness of its missile defense capability and hurt its ability to produce and sell these costly weapon systems. That’s why they just stared at the sky.

The United States is now discussing the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. The U.S.-North Korea crisis is a bonanza for the military industrial complex.

But as North Korea intensifies its pressure, the United States will fall deeper into its dilemma of whether to exercise a military option or not. Even if only for their own security and welfare, the people of the United States need to call for immediate talks between the United States and North Korea toward a permanent peace agreement.

Next Steps for the South Korean Progressive Movement

Step one: Demand immediate U.S.-North Korea talks for a peace agreement on the Korean Peninsula.

We regard the current situation as the greatest crisis since the Korean War.

There are those in South Korea who do not consider the current situation to be so serious. There are two reasons for this. One is desensitization because of the chronic nature of war threats in Korea. The other is a false sense of security from the belief that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles guarantee deterrence. This is based on false understanding of the nature of imperialism and the military industrial complex. War often erupts when we’re least expecting it. In the current situation of heightened tension, even a minor accident or miscalculation can trigger a war with catastrophic consequences.

We will unite all who desire peace in South Korea to call for immediate talks between the United States and North Korea for a permanent peace agreement on the Korean peninsula.

Trump plans to visit South Korea in November. We will organize a mass anti-Trump action to express our opposition to war and to call for peace on the Korean peninsula.

Step two: Build progressive political power.

The people of South Korea have great expectations of the Moon Jae-in government because it was born out of the candlelight revolution. But as the additional deployment of the THAAD launchers has clearly shown, the Moon administration is powerless in a system centered on the U.S.-ROK alliance. It even chose to prioritize the U.S.-ROK alliance over its pledge to the Seongju residents and the South Korean people.

What the Moon government’s THAAD deployment proved is that unless the people create our own party, we cannot become protagonists in our own society. It reaffirmed that unless all South Korean progressive forces come together to fight against U.S. aggression and the forces of reaction, there can be no peace on the Korean peninsula. We aim to unify all progressive forces in this time of war threats and to strengthen our political power through unified struggle for a peace system on the Korean peninsula.

Step three: Use every opportunity to expose the problematic nature of the U.S.-ROK alliance and U.S. troops in Korea.

We expect a series of issues related to the U.S.-ROK alliance and the presence of U.S. troops in Korea to emerge in the coming months: Trump’s proposed renegotiation of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement; the annual U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting; U.S.-ROK negotiations on defense burden-sharing, the exposure of corruption in the defense industry, the expansion of the U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek, the environmental pollution left behind by the relocation of the Yongsan military base, and the U.S. Military Chemical and Biological Weapons Lab in Busan.

We will turn all these issues into opportunities to call for an end to the unequal U.S.-ROK alliance, which subordinates South Korea’s interests, and regain our sovereignty.

The United States seeks to transform the mission of the U.S.-ROK alliance from the defense of South Korea to the defense of the U.S. mainland.

The U.S.-ROK alliance and U.S. troops in Korea only aggravate the current tension. Once the current tension is resolved and a peace system is established, they will no longer have a reason to remain.

Our next steps will focus on mass education on the problematic nature of the U.S.-ROK alliance and U.S. troops in Korea. We will also prepare for a post-Peace Agreement Korea without the presence of U.S. troops.

Part 2: Lessons from South Korea’s “Candlelight Revolution”: Consciousness of Protagonism

In 1987, the South Korean people, through a blood-stained struggle, won the democratic right to directly elect the president. Everyone celebrated the end of military dictatorship and the beginning of a democratic era. And through the liberal governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, there was actual progress in the areas of democracy and peace.

But this so-called democratic system produced the very anti-democratic Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. The latter largely stemmed from the inadequacy of the current system of democracy, but it also reflected the choice of the majority of the people for whom the question of “how to put food on the table” became the primary concern.

Of course, these reactionary governments failed to provide a solution for “putting food on the table” for the majority of the people. They also rolled back democratic gains, and their authoritarian style was not much different from that of previous military dictatorships.

The so-called Democratic Party and the National Assembly, which were born out of the struggle for democracy, failed to defend hard-won democratic gains and sometimes even acted as an accomplice to the reactionary Park Geun-hye government. In the fall of 2016, the corrupt nature of the Park Geun-hye government was laid bare in front of the people, but the so-called opposition party and the National Assembly did nothing.

The people, however, were different. “I elected this government into power,” they said, “So I will be the one to end it.”

October 29, 2016 marked the first candlelight mass demonstration. Nineteen mass demonstrations followed, and the candlelight caught fire across the country and culminated in 1.7 million people pouring out into the streets. This eventually led to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.

How were the South Korean people able to fight and win?

First of all, it was through continuous, ceaseless struggle.

During the nine years of the reactionary Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments, South Korean progressive activists were accused of being “North Korea sympathizers,” the Unified Progressive Party was forcibly dissolved by the government, and labor unions suffered barbarous state crackdowns. And the Park Geun-hye government took complete control of the judicial branch and the corporate media.

But the people did not give up and continued to fight. In 2015, workers, farmers, and the urban poor came together in a broad national anti-Park Geun-hye united front and organized a mass demonstration. The more the government cracked down, the more the people responded by coming together in unity and solidarity.

It was at this mass demonstration in 2015 that farmer-activist Baek Nam-gi was hospitalized in a coma as a result of the murderous use of force by the police.

Meanwhile, the Park Geun-hye government continued to commit heinous crimes, such as its mishandling of the Sewol tragedy and the “comfort women” issue. Even ordinary people without complex ideological views regarded the government’s actions on these issues as egregious. And it was the people’s experiences in these struggles that culminated in the candlelight revolution.

In 2016, after lying in a coma for a year, farmer Baek Nam-gi passed away. The South Korean government, in an attempt to cover up its culpability, deployed hundreds of police officers to surround the hospital where his body lay to snatch it away and alter the truth about the cause of his death. Progressive activists physically confronted the police in an attempt to deter them.

In the midst of all this, news of the so-called Park Geun-hye/Choi Soon-sil scandal broke in the media. The left was already fired up and ready to fight, and the people who said, “Can’t take it no more”—including office workers, housewives, junior high school students, and the elderly—all came out to the streets.

The organized left and civil society—these two forces came together and held candlelight demonstrations at the city, county, and province levels across the country. This became the basis for a sustained movement.

Second of all, when people realize that they are the protagonists of change and have the power to uncover the truth, nothing can stop them.

When people merely think of themselves as helping or supporting a cause, they tend to de-prioritize it when they get busy with other things. But when we think of something as our own imperative, we don’t put it off. Likewise, when the majority of the people felt that it was their own imperative to bring down the repressive government, this created a revolutionary possibility.

I think this is critical. Everyone here is the protagonist of their own lives, this society, and the world. Everyone on this earth was born with the right to be a protagonist. But we don’t yet have the consciousness of protagonists.

How do people become protagonists of change? How can we make this happen? The importance of this question was the greatest lesson of the candlelight revolution.

The U.S.-North Korea Conflict: The Final Stage

Military tension between North and South Korea has always been headline news in Korea. Every year in March and August, when the U.S. and South Korean militaries conduct their massive military exercises, tensions escalate, and each time, people in Korea experience renewed fear: “Maybe this time, it will really lead to war.”

The U.S. and South Korean militaries say these are routine exercises, but they deploy weapons of mass destruction, rehearse the occupation of North Korea, and simulate real-war scenarios as well as the decapitation of the North Korean leadership. North Korea has strongly objected to these exercises, but this has been going on for a long time.

The Korean peninsula has always lived with the imminent threat of war. But until recently, it never made headline news in the United States.

I’ve been seeing the headlines in U.S. news in the few days I’ve been here: “Kim Jong-un, North Korea, missiles….” This ironically pleased me because finally what was once considered only a problem of the Korean peninsula has now become a U.S. problem. Now that the war threats are acute, it has finally become headline news in the United States.

It is the United States that has conducted the greatest number of nuclear tests, possesses the greatest nuclear arsenal, and has actually dropped atomic bombs on a civilian population. North Korea is in the stage of developing and testing nuclear weapons, opposes U.S. aggression and sanctions, and demands a peace treaty. Which party is the real threat?

For the first time in a long time, defending the U.S. mainland from the threat of nuclear war has become a priority policy agenda for the U.S. government. Of course, news about North Korea must be distressing for the people who live in the United States.

But it is the U.S. government that has created this situation, and the solution is quite simple. It is to realize a peace agreement between the United States and North Korea.

The more the United States piles on sanctions against North Korea through the UN, the more North Korea will become hostile and the two countries will inch closer to war. And the more this crisis intensifies, the U.S. government will sell more weapons to South Korea and increasingly meddle in South Korea’s internal affairs.

For the past sixty years, since the Korean War and the 1953 signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty between South Korea and the United States, South Korea has been a military outpost for the United States. The so-called U.S.-ROK alliance seriously undermines the sovereignty of South Korea. The forced deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system is a case in point.

We demand the following:

  1. The United States must end sanctions against North Korea, which are an act of war.

  2. North Korea and the United States must sign a permanent peace agreement.

  3. U.S. forces in Korea should withdraw from the Korean peninsula along with their weapons of mass destruction.

  4. The United States must stop meddling in South Korea’s internal affairs.

Lastly, we must build enduring solidarity for peace in Korea and across the world.

The Minjung Party Is a Party of the Candlelight Revolution

The Minjung Party is a party of workers, farmers, urban poor, youth, and women. It is a party that aims to unify all progressive forces in South Korea.

The Minjung Party aims to realize people’s sovereignty through the self-reliant unification of the Korean peninsula, class and social equality, and the practice of direct democracy.

The era of voting for politicians and hoping they will represent us is over. What we demonstrated through the candlelight revolution is that the people, when unified in action, are more competent than any career politician.

The Minjung Party will move the arena of politics from Yo-ui-do, where the National Assembly is located, to the public square, where the people gather. We are a party that aims to realize people’s sovereignty through direct democracy.

“The most competent political leader is the unified people” is our slogan, and we will fight for a people-centered society and peace on the Korean peninsula and the world.

Jang Jinsook is the Director of Planning of the Minjung Party (formerly New People’s Party) of South Korea. She earned a PhD in Sociology at Sungkonghoe University and studied Political Science and Policy Planning at the Sungkonghoe University Graduate School for NGO Studies. She was formerly a member of the Policy and Education Committee of the Seoul branch of Kyoreh Hana, a South Korean NGO devoted to peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.


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