On the night of May 2, I was at Cheonggye Plaza where the first large scale candlelight assembly against importing United States (US) beef was held. It was fascinating to look at the myriad of reactions from the media regarding this rally. Netizens and worried citizens about the safety of food gathered at the Cheonggye stream, where assembly was held against the very person who restored the Cheonggyechun, President Lee Myung-bak.
The one reaction that drew my attention among others was that of the Grand National Party HANNARA. According to the vice-spokesperson of the party, this protest was planned by ";eft wingers" to agitate "anti-Americanism," and mad cow disease was merely a tool for this purpose.
"It is a mess, a total mess." This was heard repeatedly in conversations among press cameramen at the rally. And yes, it really was a total chaos. I would not call myself a passionate civil rights activist, but it was different from all the other civil rights protests that I had been to as a journalist of The Hanyang Journal. Unlike anti-FTA rallies or demonstrations against increasing the tuition, whose intentions were clear and well organized, this protest seemed chaotic and poorly planned. There were only loud and annoying amplifier noises, and the planning did not go smoothly since there was no particular group managing it.
The poorly-chosen Cheonggye Plaza caused people to be scattered and decentralized, and different protests ran separately. And on the main field, there were individual workers and friends and couples who arrived spontaneously after getting off work and school. I could see people bringing candles and paper cups to share with other participants, and adults sharing their flame with students who arrived late.
The next day, I could feel the bloodthirstiness of the conservative presses. It seemed like they had some kind of complex about candles burning in the square. They insisted that the rally was a demagogy of left wingers, and the Seoul City's education superintendent said that the "Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union" was behind the students who participated in it.
But at least among the people I met at the site that day, I could feel a sense of urgency from them. The current emergency of the Korean economy gives support to a president who is only concerned about raising the economy, but now instead of the economy, our food is threatening our lives. Education, society, and social welfare policies by the new administration, that only represent riches, is like "the law of the jungle." The president's perception of not eating beef that may contain mad cow disease is too miserable.
Today our voluntary civil rights movements are easily underestimated by some of the press and politicians. Citizens who go out to the squares might hear the unpleasant words that they need to be enlightened. But I am so proud of Koreans who are mature enough to actively express the Korean opinion. And I believe that if the culture of voluntary participation and action spreads widely, someday the politicians who sit in their headquarters and hurl abuse at the people gathering at the Cheonggye stream will start to listen to the people.