South Korea: Democracy at Work

Courtney Cavanah
The timeframe in which I chose to study abroad in South Korea was the best I could have ever decided on, because it allowed me to witness history. I arrived in August 2016, and by the time I left to return the United States in June 2017, a whole series of historic political events had played out, where one President was impeached and another had been elected.
The news outlets lit up around October, and they couldn’t keep two names out of the headlines for months following. As it turns out, President Park Geun-hye was involved in an elaborate scandal where she was not only sharing government secrets with her confidant, Choi Soon-sil, but also conspired with her to steal a lot of government money using their status and power. Following this revelation, massive organized protests began being held in Gwanghwamun, the large square in the heart of Seoul.
Every Saturday night, I made it a point to avoid the area, due to a high amount of traffic both in the subways and on the roads. Although I never participated in a protest (which I urge none of you to do either, since it is a foreign government and you could get yourself into trouble), I did make it a point to stand back and observe what was happening, from an outside-looking-in perspective.
The atmosphere was… changing. The public disdain for the Park administration could be felt everywhere. Around my host university, huge banners were hung saying, “President Park, resign now,” as students organized and marched in protests. It was a topic of discussion in all of my classes, including the Korean modern history class I was taking at the time. In my Korean language classes in particular, we held discussions about the political climate even with our limited skills. It was an intriguing dynamic, since all of my classmates were from other countries and could offer different perspectives.
To the citizens’ victory, President Park was removed from office in March. Once she was out, the new 60-day election was kicked into high gear. My route to school was painted in the colors of the various political parties, and loudspeakers shared their political messages. Wherever you went, whatever you watched on TV, the election was in the air and couldn’t be ignored. At the end of it all, candidate number 1, Moon Jae-in, was elected in May, and was inaugurated into office immediately. With President Park now in jail, and a new president in the Blue House, everyone took a collective sigh of relief as politics began to return to normal.
Although I wasn’t a Korean citizen and was therefore not a part of the election process, I was so intrigued to learn more about what was happening around me and watch my host country transform before my eyes. One of the reasons I was so drawn to South Korea in the first place was because of their rich and unique modern history – from the 1950’s, a war-torn land, to the present day’s bustling global economy. I feel immensely privileged to have been in the right place at the right time, in the midst of a monumental change as it was happening, and being able to appreciate the unity of citizens using their voices and acting against injustice. It was the most political action I had witnessed on this grand of a scale, and it was during my time abroad in South Korea that I realized how extraordinary the democratic process truly is.
Courtney Cavanah is a Junior Linguistics major with a minor in Korean and a certificate in Asian Studies. She participated in an exchange program in Seoul, South Korea during the 2016-2017 academic year on the Freeman-ASIA scholarship, a scholarship for students who demonstrate financial need and are interested in pursuing study abroad in Asia.