South Korea’s candlelight protests through the eyes of North Korean defector participants

“Watching the candlelight rally, I thought, ‘This is what real democracy looks like.’ In North Korea, you cannot even consider a protest because not only will you be severely punished, but also your whole family due to the regime’s policy of guilt by association. Furthermore, because the demonstration was targeting none other than the president, it felt astonishing and scary at the same time.” – North Korean defector Mr. Yang (defected from North Pyongan Province in 2014 to South Korea).
The candlelight rally held in Gwanghwamun Square on November 19 demanding the resignation of President Park Geun Hye served as a democracy field trip of sorts for the North Korean defectors who were in attendance. The defectors were all similarly surprised at the fact that ordinary people can express their political opinions without being censored.
For defectors who have just recently left Hanawon (a state-run facility in South Korea that prepares North Korean defectors for integration in South Korean society), the rally was a particularly moving experience. It was a bold demonstration of democracy in action, which they had learned about through Hanawon, and from pre-settled defectors.
Choi Yoo Shin (alias, 37) left Hanawon around six months ago and is working at a sewing factory. For her, the candlelight rally was a special experience. “In North Korea, I used to mock Kim Jong Un by calling him ‘fatty’ with my friends, but for the citizens to request a national leader to resign is really amazing,” she said.
“I wanted to participate in the rally on November 12 too, but I was afraid that I could be arrested or that my family in North Korea could be in danger if I was caught on a camera. [But after attending the rally this time], I acutely realized that even a leader of the nation must answer for their wrongdoings, and the real owners of the nation are the citizens,” she added.
Kang Yoo Ra (alias, aged 34) who attended the rally with Ms. Choi added, “[November 19] was the most amazing day I’ve had since entering South Korea. The fervor of the citizens to protect democracy was really marvelous. I hope that I can genuinely understand the sentiment some day.”
Defectors who have lived in South Korea for longer periods of time also confessed that they found it difficult to understand the culture of protests and rallies at first, because North Korea strictly bans such activities, even though the constitution stipulates that “the citizens have freedom of press, publication, assembly, demonstration and association.”
Kim Pil Ju (31) who settled in South Korea nearly 10 years ago, said, “I didn’t understand the culture of protests at first. I was even questioning if allowing such rebellious actions against the government can be called democracy. In North Korea, if you are caught protesting against the regime, you will be immediately executed.”
“I think the fact that people can freely express their anger about the wrongdoings of the leader indicates that South Korea is a healthy society. However, I do believe that people should consistently show a mature sense of citizenship,” he added.
Writer Jang Hae Sung (aged 71, defector) pointed out, “The moment North Korea chose the socialist system, it became a society where demonstration and association cannot take place.”
“It is impossible to even imagine such rallies or demonstrations occurring in North Korea. The Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the top authority, will root out any activities that could threaten the dictatorship of the Kim family.”
In the meantime, some defectors also participated in a “Save Park Geun Hye” rally on  November 19 on the plaza in front of Seoul Station, hosted by a number of conservative groups including Parksamo (citizens’ support club for Park Geun Hye). The organizers estimated that 70,000 people attended the event, while the police estimated that about 24,000 attended.
“The candlelight rally is most welcomed by the North Korean authorities. The regime is sending out instructions to the pro-North groups in South Korea, mobilizing all its media including its numbers station and the Rodong Sinmun,” asserted Ham Gyu Ho (alias, 67), a defector who was previously a high-ranking military officer in North Korea.
“I fully understand that President Park has done wrong, but setting aside the law, we should think about what will happen after the President resigns. The opposition party is instigating the citizens for its own political goals without giving proper alternatives.”
He added, “I am well aware of what North Korea is thinking now – better than most, because I worked in the military for a long time. Apart from stabilizing the political situation, now is the time to establish countermeasures against possible provocations by North Korea.”