Candlelight Democracy Movement and Environmentalism in South Korea

In this guest lecture for the subject Critical Issues in Contemporary Asia (AST3CIA) in the Asian Studies program at La Trobe University, I examine the relationship between the Candlelight democracy movement that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun Hye and the environment movement in South Korea.  I argue that the corruption scandal surrounding President Park, following on from her government’s poor response to the Sewol ferry disaster, was a proximate trigger for the venting of broader grievances with South Korea’s developmental state model, of which concerns over environmental degradation were a key part.  The protest movement in 2016-2017 featured significant issue linkage of concerns over political corruption, social dislocation, suffocating work-life imbalances, and other quality-of-life pressures.

The lecture begins by summarising the Park Geun Hye corruption scandal.  It then explores the broader context of the corruption scandal by outlining the contours of South Korea’s developmental state political-economic model and documenting some of the social impacts of this system stemming from rapid change, highly stressful education and work cultures, consumption envy, and cost of living pressures and flagging employment prospects for young professionals.  The lecture then identifies some of the environmental impacts of the developmental state model, particularly in relation to air and water pollution, deforestation, and climate change vulnerability.  I concludes by mapping out a menu of political choices available to citizens in responding to these problems.  Full audio of the lecture is available below.

Korea’s Candlelight democracy movement has proximate causes unique to Korean politics, but is characteristic of broader social movements emerging globally at this time as all societies struggle with emerging ecological, social and economic upheavals that are as tectonic in scale as those that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.  In this meta context, large hierarchical institutions are increasingly hitting a wall because they are often not flexible enough in responding to 21st century problems.


Thank you to AST3CIA subject coordinator Dr Monika Winarnita for the invitation to contribute to the subject.  Thanks also to the AST3CIA student group, who were a wonderful audience and asked many insightful questions.

This material is a backgrounder for my upcoming conference presentation at the Reimagining Korean Identity through Wars, Money, Ideas and Exchanges: 70 years’ Identity Transformation conference at Monash University in August.  Constructive feedback on this material is most welcome.