Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children joined one of the largest anti-government protests ever seen in Seoul on Saturday, demanding South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s resignation over a snowballing corruption scandal.
Police put the turnout at 260,000, while organisers said one million people took to the streets for what was the third in a series of weekly mass protests that have left Park fighting for her political survival.
On the back of official appeals for calm, police deployed around 25,000 officers, many of them in full riot gear, while police buses and trucks blocked every access road — major or minor — around the presidential Blue House.
As night fell, Seoul’s main ceremonial boulevard Gwanghwamun became a moving river of flickering candles held by the banner-waving, slogan-chanting demonstrators calling on Park to step down.
As with the previous protests, the huge crowds were extremely mixed, with high school students rubbing shoulders with Catholic nuns, labourers, farmers, retirees and young couples marching with babies or young children.
“It was our wedding anniversary yesterday but we cancelled our anniversary trip and came to Seoul because we thought it was more important for our daughter,” said Cho Joo-Pyo, who came with his wife and their two-year-old.
Cho’s family had travelled from Jeonju, around 200 kilometres (120 miles) south of Seoul — one of tens of thousands who took trains or buses from towns and cities across the country to demonstrate.
“Park Geun-Hye must resign because she didn’t take good care of our country,” said 11-year-old Park Ye-Na.
– Fraud and scandal –
The scandal engulfing Park for the past three weeks has focused on her close friend, Choi Soon-Sil, who is currently under arrest on charges of fraud and abuse of power.
Prosecutors are investigating allegations that Choi, 60, leveraged their friendship to coerce donations from large companies like Samsung to non-profit foundations which she set up and used for personal gain.
She is also accused of interfering in government affairs, despite holding no official position.
Lurid reports of the unhealthy influence Choi wielded over Park have seen the president’s approval ratings plunge to five percent — a record low for a serving president.
And Saturday’s rally was a focal point for a litany of other complaints, from plunging rice prices to the government’s handling of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster.
One group dressed in traditional funeral gear carried a large “presidential coffin” covered with a banner reading: “Step down Park Geun-Hye, killer of agriculture, farms and farmers.”
The protest was peaceful but sometimes reached deafening volumes as performers and activists whipped the crowds into a raucous frenzy from a giant stage.
“We’re so close to the Blue House. Let her hear us roar!” yelled one speaker who was rewarded with a massed bellow of approval.
– ‘Meaningless’ apologies –
In an effort to soothe public anger, Park has issued several public apologies, voicing her personal “heartbreak” at being the cause of such widespread anger and distress.
She has also reshuffled top officials and even agreed to relinquish some of her extensive executive powers, but the popular calls for her to step down have been relentless.
“I’m here to demand Park Geun-Hye’s resignation. Her apologies are meaningless,” said 66-year-old Cho Ki-Mang.
Most experts believe Park, who has just over a year left of her single five-year term, will be able to ride out the crisis and remain in office, albeit with her authority and ability to govern seriously undermined.
Opposition lawmakers have largely avoided direct resignation calls and appear more interested in extracting further concessions from Park in terms of devolving power to the legislature.
But the sheer size and volume of Saturday’s demonstration — the biggest anti-government rally since the pro-democracy protests of the late 1980s — will ramp up the pressure on her to quit.
A protest in June 2008 against then-president Lee Myung-Bak’s decision to lift an import ban on US beef drew 80,000 people according to police, while organisers claimed 700,000 took part.