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Korea and the French Revolution

Oct 27,2018
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Ko Dae-hoon
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

The candlelight protests of the Korean people can be compared to the French Revolution, at least according to President Moon Jae-in. During his state visit to France last week, Moon praised the importance of revolution. “The spirit of the French Revolution was rekindled in the light of revolution in each and every candle held by the people of the Republic of Korea,” he said during the welcome reception at the city hall of Paris. In a meeting with Korean residents in France, he said, “Our candlelight revolution defended Korea’s democracy in the most beautiful and peaceful way.”

“I have felt that the French Revolution and the candlelight revolution of Gwanghwamun were deeply connected beyond time and space,” he also wrote in a Facebook posting.

He recalled that he received an unprecedented welcome during his visit. It seemed like France, the country of revolution, treated Moon as a leader of a revolution.

The candlelight protests are indeed similar to the French Revolution of 1789. The people led an effort to overthrow an existing system.

The French Revolution, that began with the Storming of the Bastille, ended the Ancien Régime. The Korean people, enraged by the incompetence and corruption of the Park Geun-hye administration, managed to end her rule with the 2016-2017 candlelight protests.

Attempts to remove old power and severe ties with the past are also similar. The French Revolution was reign of terror. Over 10,000 were executed, including Louis XVI. Maximilien Robespierre, an extreme leftist who led the reign of terror, justified the dictatorship of revolution by saying that “If God did not exist, we would have to invent Him.”

The slogan of the candlelight revolution is eradicating accumulated evils. The powerful establishment and it supporters were labeled as “accumulated evils”, and trials of morality were conducted.

The Moon administration also used a symbol that is sacred and inviolable — candlelight. It is an intrinsic nature of a revolution to bypass laws and norms and sometimes reign over the people in order to accomplish the revolution’s goal.

In order to bypass the National Assembly for the ratification of the Pyongyang Declaration and the inter-Korean military agreement, the Blue House offers the absurd argument that North Korea is not a state. For the first time in the 70 years since the special committee formed in 1948 after the country’s foundation, a special court is about to open.

Senior Presidential Civil Affairs Secretary Cho Kuk openly humiliates an incumbent senior judge by publicizing his past behavior. Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom criticizes unfriendly media by saying that “I understand your patriotic sentiments, but you should stop worrying.”

For the candlelight protests to come close to the French Revolution as Moon wishes, it must have universal spirit. Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité — French for liberty, equality and fraternity — is the motto of the French Revolution. Although there was some downside, such as destruction, violence and disorder, the spirit of the revolution was upheld in the Second French Revolution in July 1830, the February Revolution in 1848 and May uprisings in 1968, and they are still important today.

Liberty includes the liberty to reject those in power and to criticize them. But the current government dreams of an “aseptic” society. Its attempt to go after fake news is actually a move to silence the opposition. The people who promoted press freedom are now following past authoritarian regimes that went after rumors and fake news.

A society without an opposition is a dead society. It is the government’s job to think about why so many people are willing to be fooled by fake news.

Equality is the right not be discriminated against and to be treated equally under the law. The corrupt employment processes of companies and unfair appointments remind us that the administration’s slogan of “equal opportunity, fair processes and just outcomes” were empty promises.
Fraternity is more like a brotherhood. It is an attempt to embrace everyone promoting liberty and equality, although they may have different opinions. It is not about absolute fraternity among certain groups. It is not a license to annihilate the political opposition. And yet, they are creating a league of their own and completely excluding the opposition.

During a dinner at the Palais de l’Élysée, Moon said he felt the greatness of France in its tolerance and harmony. He is right. Pride and hatred cannot create a spirit of a revolution. Such a revolution is nothing more than madness.

Only with the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity can a candlelight protest become a revolution. But procedural justice is often ignored and the demands of protesters who want the end of division and confrontation are being forgotten.

In his essay, “The Rebel,” Albert Camus wrote that revolution is like loving someone who has yet to exist. Revolution is love with an unknown future. We wonder whether the candlelight is moving in the right direction.

Are we in a revolution now?

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 26, Page 35