Ground zero for observing the fate of Park Geun-hye – and South Korean society more generally – was a rigidly divided stretch of road near the Constitutional Court in northern Seoul. On one side, a crowd desperate for the court to uphold Park’s long-awaited impeachment; on the other, self-appointed patriots clamouring for her to remain in office. A steel barricade and countless riot police stood between them.
On the side in favour of Park’s ouster, protesters sat in orderly rows. Shortly before acting chief justice Lee Jung-mi of the Constitutional Court began reading the verdict at 11 am, a speaker on the pro-impeachment side called out, “We would like everyone to stay safe. Please sit down.”
“We don’t want conflict with the people behind us,” he added, referring to the overwhelmingly right-wing protesters opposed to Park’s impeachment. “Today is a day for making history.”
Just behind him, at a raucous (and much larger) gathering filled with loud music and guttural shouts in support of Park, participants were clinging to a vision of an older South Korea: A country reliant on a heavy-handed leader to provide order, and security against North Korea.
“We’re all here just because we wish to protect the country,” said Lee Chang-woo, a dapper middle-aged man dressed in a navy turtleneck and a cream-coloured trench coat affixed with a button that read, “We love Korea.”
Lee scoffed at any basis for impeaching Park. “There’s no evidence of wrongdoing. She is a true patriot,” he said.
The higher numbers on the pro-Park side are not an accurate reflection of South Korean public sentiment (polls showed around 80 percent of South Koreans felt Park should be impeached), but more of the demographics of the participants.
On the pro-Park side, nearly all participants appeared to be past retirement age, with a much more varied distribution of ages on the pro-impeachment side. The anti-Park side, which has noticeably more young people in the mix, has been marching with candles most Saturday evenings in recent months. Many of them were presumably in class or on the job when the impeachment verdict was handed down. “Students and working people can’t come out at this time, so I came out instead, to show support,” said Kwon Hee-young, a middle-aged housewife who supported impeachment.
Kwon said she had participated in some of the candlelight demonstrations that led up to the court’s ruling to oust the president, and felt that the movement was a significant development in altering the course of South Korean history. “Park is emblematic of everything wrong with our society: the corruption, the authoritarianism. That’s why we need to get her out,” Kwon said.
Pro-impeachment protesters spoke of Friday’s ruling as the culmination of a movement that has stretched on for months, since the allegations of collusion and government interference by Choi Soon-sil began to surface in the autumn of 2016. Yoon Jae-sung, a middle-aged man, said he had attended a few rounds of the candlelight demonstrations. “Today is the last one. We thought it was important to be here,” he said while seated cross-legged on the asphalt, next to his wife.
The day’s crescendo came as acting chief justice Lee Jung-mi read out the verdict upholding Park’s impeachment, with all eight justices voting in favor.
The consensus inside the court contrasted sharply with the scene outside, where pro-impeachment protesters rejoiced and right-wingers shouted and grieved. The vote to oust Park signals an inglorious end to a political dynasty, started by the now-former president’s father Park Chung-hee, a military general who led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. The elder is fondly remembered by many on the right, and credited for driving South Korea’s economic development.
Pro-Park Noh Kwang-woon, a 62-year-old woman, was saddened by the court’s upholding of the impeachment, and credits the elder Park for her own rise out of poverty. “I grew up eating tree bark,” she said. “That’s when Park Chung-hee came in, building bridges and roads… ask your parents what it was like back then. Young people don’t understand a thing.”
While some stuck around, continuing to chant and vowing to fight against the impeachment, frustration smoldered as the right-wing protesters gradually filtered down into the subway station below their gathering. Scuffling groups of middle-aged men shouted epithets as they were separated by police.
The scene turned violent after the announcement, with police announcing the deaths of two men, one in his 60s and one in his 70s.
On the other side of the barricade, the pro-impeachment demonstrators clapped in unison as they embarked on a joyous march toward Gwanghwamun Square, the epicentre of the popular movement demanding Park’s removal from office, chanting their next objective: “Arrest Park Geun-hye!”
Seohoi Stephanie Park contributed to this report.
All photographs by Jun Michael Park.