International Students’ Views on the Korean President Scandal (Choi Sun-sil-gate)

Introduction and Interviews by Kim Yoon-ho, Chonnam National University student

Photos by Kim Hee-seung

Recently, there has been an unprecedented political scandal in Korea, and society is feeling its negative effects. All Korean media is focusing on this scandal, and the political scene is changing immensely. On December 9, 2016, the National Assembly ultimately moved to impeach President Park Geun-hye in a plenary session, but there have still been many people taking to the streets, protesting.

The international media is paying attention to this shameful scandal as well. The fact that the president of Korea committed such a crime disappoints not only Koreans but people in other countries as well. However, at the same time, they are surprised by the Korean people’s peaceful candlelit demonstrations every week. In this situation, I wondered if international students’ thoughts about what is going on in Korea are different from the foreign media’s, and so I asked the students of Chonnam National University about it.

Q. How do you feel about the Korean presidential scandal?
A. (Uzbekistan) I have been in Korea for about eight months, but it is the first time for me to feel such an intense reaction from the Korean people. When I arrived here for the first time, I thought everything was okay and that it is so peaceful here. But, recently, almost every Korean person has said negative things about Korea, in presentations or daily conversation. So, I got to thinking that that situation is really messy, through news about demonstrations in Seoul and what I heard from Korean friends. In short, I am so surprised because I have never experienced this in my country. Although Uzbekistan is also a republic with similar rules as Korea, we have never demonstrated because we really respect our president.

A. (France) It is the first time I have personally experienced [this type of] Korean issue, even if I did not go to protest. What surprises me is that the public has asked the president to resign, but she is still staying in the Blue House. She lost face. In this situation, demonstrations are very useful usually, but I do not think the demonstrations have been so effective in Korea because the president was sleeping while the people were protesting. She is really mean. She hasn’t done anything [to alleviate the situation]. She should have tried to find a way to make the situation better. I heard that she was elected because she does not have her own family – like kids and a husband – so people thought she could be fully dedicated to Korea. But, she is just listening without taking any action, in my view.

A. (Philippines) When for the first time I heard about this news, I was surprised. I felt it is strange that the president asked for advice from a person not even related to politics. So, as an international student, I kind of feel like I should care about this issue. Most politicians around the world who use personal links for politics are usually seeking advice from someone related to politics, like a person who has worked in government, so they can match their ideas together. But, in this case, Choi Sun-sil has never had anything to do with politics.

A. (Japan) I was so surprised because I could not even imagine that a normal person would give out confidential documents about government issues, let alone the elected president. It is unbelievable, I think. That was my first impression when I heard the news about this scandal.

A. (United States) What is really interesting is that the Korean people are so passionate about their country. I heard that when Korea was almost bankrupt, a lot of citizens gave the government their own gold. It is incredible. So, because of the fact that the president is corrupt, a million people went to protest against their president. I think it shows a lot about the Korean people. Every country has corruption. I do not think it is only a Korean problem, but the thing is that Korea’s corruption was discovered. If the corruption was not discovered, it would still be there, and we would not know about it. So, I do not think it is exactly just a problem in Korea. At the same time, in America, there is definitely corruption in government as you can see from the recent election, and South Africa is also seriously corrupt. I mean, as an international student, I do not focus only on Korea but the whole world. It is unfortunate that the problem happened in Korea, but at least we know that the problem is there so we can fix it.

An interesting aspect of their opinions is that they focus on the protest more than the political scandal itself. Perhaps this is because political corruption is repeated historically all over the world, but it is quite difficult to find millions of people coping with the government through an entirely peaceful movement, especially as one of the problems of the recent world is political apathy of the younger generation. Therefore, the Korean people’s candlelit protest is quite meaningful to every country.

Q. What do you think about the fact that millions of people demonstrated?
A. (Philippines) I was touched by it. I was so impressed by how Koreans are fighting for their rights and what they demand.

A. (Japan) If people do not do anything, the president cannot know their anger. I think going outside and showing their anger is a good [thing]. And also, I could not imagine that such a number of people would come to protest. I visited the protest in Gwangju on the 19th. I was impressed by the protesters intense emotions, attitudes, songs, and facilities, like the stages. I thought it was like a concert. I believe this kind of peaceful, but not quiet, protest is the best kind. This kind of protest is very different from Japanese protests. Basically, Japanese people are not that interested in politics, so they do not protest as actively as Korean people do.

A. (United States) It is awesome because the population of Korea is just 50 million, and that means 1 in 50 people went to protest. That is amazing. That shows how much Koreans are willing to show pride in their nationality and patriotism because they are willing to give up their entire weekend. Almost all bus tickets were sold out to Seoul and traffic went crazy, but it shows how many people have passion about their country. Better yet, the protest was so peaceful. In American protests, there are many violent people, but it is very peaceful here.

All of the students I interviewed regard candlelit rallies in Korea as a very positive way to make change. What’s more, the students assured me that they are willing to protest if their home-country faces such a crisis of corruption.

Q. If you were a Korean, or if a similar scandal happened in your country, what would you like to do?
A. (Uzbekistan) During the Soviet Union period, many people of the older generation demonstrated to ask for independence back then. So, I would go protest if this kind of scandal was happening in my country; I cannot imagine it, though. I will go demonstrate to protect my country.

A. (France) We would do the same thing. In France, there are large demonstrations against the president and government every single year. Especially since there were terrorist attacks recently, people get together not to demonstrate, but to stand against terrorism and pray for victims.

A. (Philippines) First, I would need to make sure that the story was real and get a lot of information about it before reacting. And then, if it is real, I would protest by walking down the road, being a part of the people and shouting.

A. (Japan) Maybe I would protest like the Korean people do. In fact, I did not go to protests in Japan because I was scared of protesting. But I went to the Korean people’s protest and got to know what kind of mood there was, so now I could do it in Japan as well; Korean style is too dramatic to do in Japan, though.

A. (United States) As you can already see, there are a lot of protests and fighting against Trump, but I think it is a little bit of a different issue. This is not against corruption but a person they do not like. But, if I were a Korean, I would definitely want to participate in marches and protests everywhere.

At the very least, these five students are showing the passion that they are willing to devote to their country, which is a welcome difference from the political apathy that is widespread around the world. Nowadays, it is much easier to get information through the Internet and social media than it was in the past, especially for the young. Even a person who is not that interested in politics can usually be exposed to various news sources through the Internet in general. Choi Sun-sil-gate was revealed to the Korean people in this way, and it led to the miracle of candlelit rallies of public anger. Last of all, these brilliant interviewees have left messages of support for the Korean people.

Korean people know what they want and try to act now.
It is a very good way to achieve something.

I think it is good to try; I am not sure it will work, though.

Keep fighting for what you stand for.
If you think you are doing it for the right thing,
keep doing it and never give up until you get to that point.

I think Korean people are energetic.
I envy Korean people. Go for it!

You should continue to protest peacefully, and do not give up. A lot of Americans are inspired by Korean protests.
(United States)

For more information, you can visit Kim Yoon-ho’s blog:

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