South Koreans Chart the Course of Their Country's Future


There’s an adage in Korean that says a leader is merely a boat sailing on a sea of citizens; the people decide whether it stays afloat or capsizes (군주민수).

Over the past several months, the citizens of South Korea have shown the international community the truth behind this adage and the power of collective action.

In November 2016, we interviewed South Korean millennials to get a measure for how young Koreans felt about the unfolding Choigate scandal.

Then-President Park’s approval rating had dropped to a dismal 4 percent, and one of our interviewees, a senior in university, described the situation as a “turning point.” The majority of those we interviewed shared the same optimism, although with reservations.

A frank remark from a young professional illustrated the underlying doubt that tainted their optimism. “We have a saying in Korea that Koreans are hot pots,” he explained. The phrase describes a perceived tendency for Koreans to get furious about a certain issue and gain a lot of interest in it, but after some time passes, they cool down and history inevitably repeats itself.

Whether that blanket statement applied to Korean society in the context of this scandal remained to be seen.

Turning of the tide

We followed the developments over the next few months as peaceful candlelight rallies with more than one million participants called for the impeachment of Park week after week. Following the sixth candlelight rally, which had a historical record-breaking 2.32 million participants, South Korea entered December 2016 with a new acting president.

In March 2017, the country’s Constitutional Court upheld Park’s impeachment and  officially removed her from power. This was the “turning point” in Korean history foreshadowed by our interviewees four months earlier.

The turbulence of South Korean society successfully capsized Park’s leader-ship, and through a democratic process, they’ve elected Moon Jae-in into power. Polls reported earlier this month that President Moon’s approval rating stood at 83 percent. This puts him in stark contrast to Park’s 4 percent before being ousted.

The citizens of South Korea are solely responsible for this outcome. They collectively took control of their future, becoming an example for the international community.

While a sigh of relief is hard-earned, President Moon’s full presidential term is still uncharted territory.

As he navigates deeply rooted societal challenges and the persistent North Korean threat, will the people keep him afloat?



Keoni Williams is a Program Assistant at Pacific Forum CSIS; University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa alumnus; and HKC editor-In-chief.