taegukgi rally in downtown Seoul February 11 2017

Impeach the Impeachment: Older Conservatives “Defend Democracy”


They call their gatherings the “Taegeukgi Rally,” after the South Korean flag. They say their flags represent a growing fire, the true fire of patriotism and democracy, countering the supposedly ill-conceived fire of the candlelight rallies. They say most of the anti-Park protesters are disruptive communists, or naive young people who don’t know any better. They believe the disgraced president Park Geun-hye should return to office.

Most of these pro-Park protesters, composed of different far-right groups, belong to South Korea’s older generation. They witnessed a time when the country, known nowadays for Samsung, K-pop and being the friendly democratic foil to the “world’s most isolated nation” up north, was once collectively hungry and actively afraid of North Korea.

They marched in Seoul last Saturday for the largest pro-Park rally yet, calling for an “impeachment of the impeachment.” Tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, walked in Seoul’s busiest streets, nearly everyone waving the South Korean flag. Nearby, on the same day, another huge crowd of anti-Park protesters held their candles up for the fifteenth weekend rally since October, calling for the president to step down immediately.

Korea Exposé talked to the pro-Park protesters in an attempt to understand why they still believed in the president, when the entire country seemed to rally against her in a rare moment of unity — including the usually partisan media outlets, traditionally conservative voters, and even lawmakers within Park’s own Saenuri party (which has recently renamed itself the “Liberty Korea Party”).

Their growing voices signify not only a ray of hope for the president and her cronies; they also illustrate the deep political divide in South Korea over the meanings of patriotism, Korean identity and democracy.


Kim Hye-sook (74): “If President Park gets impeached, we lose everything. We’re not here just to save a president. Most of us [at the rally] are here to protect this system of free democracy for posterity.” Like the other protesters, Kim said the conservatives want to save democracy from North Korean threats.

Today, her concerns and the self-righteous, simplistic division of Freedom vs. Communism seem almost laughable. But she grew up in a country where over 50% of the Ethics curriculum at school was related to anti-communism until the late 80s. She lived through the Korean War. North Korean spies conducted terrorist operations on South Korean soil. The threat felt, still feels, real to her.

Kim was adamant that president Park will not get impeached. “There is no way she will get impeached. I am certain. That will never happen.”


Park Duk-soon (47): “I’ve been to every single pro-Park weekend rally since November. Every single media outlet is criticizing the president. I thought, this is strange, it’s like communism, just looking in one direction.”

Like the majority of the pro-Park protesters, he distrusts everything on mainstream media. He relies on non-journalistic channels like Kakaotalk (a popular messaging app) for information. One of his most trusted channels is South Korea’s notorious online community Ilbe, known for its members’ misogynist, far-right, even violent activities. “I thought Ilbe was a bad website, but when I looked at its politics forum, I saw a lot of people who felt as I did,” Park said.

And if the president does get impeached by the Constitutional Court? “I’m ready to give up my life. I’m going to fight. Conservatives have been too meek. If the other side [the candlelight rally] starts getting violent, so will I. If they break the law, so will I. I won’t just be watching meekly.”


Kim Gap-jung (81): Kim is a former naval officer who calls himself conservative “by birth.” He said it isn’t possible to be otherwise, in a country that’s trying to protect itself from communism.

“If, by a one in a million chance, Park Geun-hye did commit a crime, she should be punished. But it’s a problem to impeach her when the situation is still uncertain. There was a problem with the whole process. She got impeached just because of what the newspapers said.”

This is a fair point in theory, but false in reality. Assisted by media reports, the prosecutors investigated the case and announced her as a criminal suspect before the impeachment motion was proposed and passed in December. Meanwhile, the president has refused to be questioned by the prosecutors, the special prosecutor, and the Constitutional Court, despite having promised to cooperate with the investigation.


Shin Su-kyung (64): Shin was raised in a family of twelve, forced to eat just one meal a day when times were tough.

“Who helped our country become what it is today? None of the young people know.” Shin reinforced the typical pro-Park narrative that ‘the other side’ with the candles was full of young people, oblivious and disrespectful of history. “President Park Chung-hee elevated our country. The young people don’t know any of this.”

Perhaps it’s fairer to say that the candlelight protesters and Park Chung-hee’s critics — many of whom are not at all young — offer a more complicated picture behind his ‘miracle’ of economic development. The older conservatives’ nostalgia for Park Geun-hye’s father played a major role in her 2012 presidential win (and still plays a role at the anti-impeachment rallies).

Park was raised in a presidential family during her father’s 18-year-long dictatorship, and by becoming president herself, she was seen by many to be carrying on her family line. To many of her supporters, the impeachment is seen as an ignorant denial of the elder Park’s legacy and perhaps of the Park family supporters’ own struggles in the past.

“I’m so so angry,” Shin said. “If impeachment passes, I’m still going to come out to the streets.”


Yoon Byung-chul (73): “The issue isn’t just the impeachment. I think the entire nation might dissipate,” said Yoon, who traveled up from Geoje Island, about 400 km southeast of Seoul, just for the weekend really.

“The country has come down to this because our national identity is a mess.” And what is this identity that Yoon speaks of? “It’s a matter of supporting a liberal democracy or communism. There’s no left or right. Just think of the leftists as people close to the North, and the rightists as people close to the U.S.”

Yoon, former military officer and school principal, is repeating the conventional conservative rhetoric against the political left, which favors a softer approach to North Korea. During Park’s presidency, a small leftist party was disbanded for the first time since 1958 for allegedly supporting North Korea at the cost of national security. Critics say the label “pro-North sympathizers” is a convenient conservative tactic to suppress any opposition.  

To Park’s supporters, stifling dissent on grounds of national security isn’t suppressing freedom. On the contrary, it’s the very act of protecting freedom. In their view, freedom is subordinate to national security, because protecting the country from communism — or, as critics say, claiming to protect the country — is the definition of democracy. Which is why the pro-Park protesters equate impeachment to dissolution of freedom and democracy. The logic of all this, of course, leaves much room for debate.


Uniformed men march while waving the flags that say "The Association of the 15th Class of ROTC Korea." (Haeryun Kang/Korea Exposé)
Uniformed men march at the “Taegeukgi Rally” while waving the flags that read “The Association of the 15th Class of ROTC Korea.” (Haeryun Kang/Korea Exposé)

The ruling on Park Geun-hye’s impeachment is likely to come out in March. Meanwhile, the pro-Park protests are growing in size every weekend, fueled by the impeachment decision in December and the deceptions the protesters allege on the part of the media and the prosecutors.

A recent poll by Gallup Korea showed that 80% of the surveyed Koreans still supported impeachment — but it is unclear how accurately representative this poll is. Out of the 1,007 respondents, only 208 supported the conservative parties, either the Bareun Party or Saenuri (now the Liberty Korea Party). 

Political insiders say polls can be misleading. “Conservatives in their 60s and 70s aren’t responding to polls,” said Woo Sang-ho, floor leader of the Minjoo Party, the main leftist opposition. “Maybe they’re the ‘Shy Silver’; there are quite a few in the conservative bloc who aren’t expressing their opinions.”

Park’s party is abstaining from judging the pro-Park protestors but many political parties, including the new conservative Bareun (a splinter from Park’s ruling party as a result of this scandal), have criticized the conservative rallies as being extremist.

“The South Korean flag is the pride of this nation,” wrote the Minjoo leader Choo Mi-ae on her Facebook. “Stop at once this abuse of the taegeukgi, the symbol of national independence and unity, to brazenly divide the people.”

Cover image: A poster at last Saturday’s anti-impeachment rally reads, “Have strength, president Park Geun-hye. We will protect you!”

Haeryun Kang contributed all images in this article.




  1. This older generation of conservative hardliners has always been willing to sacrifice ethics and morality to support the Korean government and its chaebol firms. For them, it has always been more important to make sacrifices for the continued growth of the Korean economy. Looking the other way and letting their institutions utilize graft and corruption to grow larger has been an integral part of their citizen credo to the point that their cognitive dissonance is no longer measurable due to its overwhelming size.

    This approach worked for them as there were jobs, incomes and an affordable cost of living during their productive period of Korea’s economic growth. Systemic corruption and graft by the government in league with chaebol are hardwired into this older generations DNA as it provided a way forward for them to raise families and educate their children.

    Due to Korea’s psychology of age hierarchy, it is impossible for this older generation to understand and empathize with the younger generations who are now faced with an entirely different economy of low job growth, stagnant wages and skyrocketing cost of living expenses. Because they have all of Korea’s wealth, they are willing to continue to support, coddle and control their children financially while the prospects of getting a job that can support the raising of an autonomous nuclear family slips further into the realm of improbability. Thus, stagnating Korea’s future growth and prosperity in the near future.

  2. Haeryun,

    Those people you interviewed have all the reason to be worried about Korea’s future.

    Over the years, Kim Il-Sung planted so many pro-NK activists in South Korea, gave kids scholarships, penetrated deeply into SK society in all areas (National assembly, the media, educational institutions, circles of art, culture and entertainment and cyber space).

    In 1997, defector Hwang Jang-Yeop said there were estimated 50,000 spies. God knows how many today…. Hwang Jang-Yeop was the founder of Juche Ideology at Kim Il-Sung University.


    In a Video Clip below, one of the high ranking spy, Kim Dong-Sik, is explaining how he and other North Korean spies approached the politicians (leftists) to turn them over to North Korea’s side. According to Kim, when he approached the leftist politician and told them he was sent by Kim Jong-Il, not even one reported him to KCIA.


    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/02/world/asia/northern-spy-lifts-cloak-on-koreas-deadly-rivalry.html (New York Times article bout Kim Dong-sik)


    • Correction:

      According to Kim, when he approached the leftist politician and told them he was sent by Kim Jong-Il, not even one reported him to KCIA.

      => not even one reported him to NIS (National Intelligence Service)

      Kim Dae Jung changed the name from NIS to KCIA in January 1999.

  3. Are you also aware that:

    The first thing Kim Dae-Jung did after he became a president in 1998 was to get rid of existing KCIA agents – 581 people in total.

    He replaced them with his people. Ever since, not even one North Korean spy has been caught. KDJ’s KCIA agents were used for tapping the communications of private and public figures, including politicians from the opposition party. The worst thing President Park did was not getting rid of these agents.

    Lee Myeong Bak/ Kim Mu Seong and many so called Saenuri Party members were never right-wing conservative politicians. I will talk about it in detail next time if I have an opportunity.

  4. The writer doesn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. With in-depth interviews, she would have found out that many Tae-geuk people had believed the stories filed by the media. But many stories– i.e., “Choi’s tablet” containing hundreds of national secrets– by the JTBC/JoongAng media conglomerate and the rest of the media outlets turned out to be false. They now understand that the Prosecution Service was disingenuous about the tablet as well. Worse yet, the tablet, the root cause of all the furor, is excluded from the pool of evidentiary material in the trial. The people feel deceived and angry about the fake news, as well as blame themselves for believing the false rumors and ersatz reporting. They are adamant about finding the truth. That’s why they are out there. John Cha

  5. I’m with Jinjoo on this one… there’s nothing “laughable” about people thinking we’re still caught in a battle between the Free World and Communism, because that’s a fight we’re still very much involved in, only that people have been desensitized to the threat thanks to years of having the wool pulled over their eyes by liberal media reporting, education provided by the pro-North KTU among others… Ever since Kim Dae-Jung gutted our HUMINT resources (how many agents had been disavowed and subsequently captured/tortured/executed is up for anyone’s guess) thousands of North Korean agents and collaborators have infiltrated our system from top-to-bottom and are actively manipulating public opinion. This doesn’t diminish anything that President Park may or may not have done, but the North Korean spy threat is very real, and it’d be naive to think they didn’t play at least some role in further sowing the seeds of sedition and discontent during the course of the ongoing Park/Choi scandal.

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