Thousands of South Korean conservatives rallied in Seoul on Thursday to protest President Moon Jae-in’s Olympic outreach to North Korea, and in support of impeached President Park Geun-hye, who faces a possible 30-year prison sentence for corruption charges related to the scandal that ousted her from office.
Moon’s opponents, many waving American flags, denounced his engagement policy to foster increased dialogue and cooperation with the North as appeasing the enemy and undermining the United States’ “maximum pressure” strategy.
“Trying to promote false peace slogans such as, no wars in Korea’” President Moon now plays an accomplice in crimes against humanity by approving nuclear weapons of Kim Jong Un,” said Kim Suk-woo, one of the rally organizers. Kim is a former vice minister of Unification and president of the National Development Institute in Seoul.
In the last year North Korea, conducted numerous threatening missile and nuclear tests to develop the capability to target the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. The leadership in Pyongyang also stands accused of crimes against humanity for longstanding and systematic human rights violations. A 2014 United Nations report documents a network of political prisons in North Korea and cases of state-sponsored killings, torture and rape.
The South Korean conservative protesters strongly support U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach that has led international efforts to impose tough sanctions to cut off funding for North Korea’s weapons program and impose economic pain, while also emphasizing the possible use of military force if sanctions fail. They also like Trump’s tough rhetoric, such as calling Kim Jong Un “rocket man.”
“Whatever the solutions, whether they are military or non-military, if the international community chooses to disarm ‘rocket man,’ we are in enthusiastic full support of this decision,” said Kim Suk-woo.
President Moon strongly opposes any U.S. preventive military action against the North that many analysts say could quickly escalate into a second Korean war that could kill millions and devastate the region.
The Moon administration has tried to improve relations with Pyongyang by facilitating its participation in the recent Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. His sports diplomacy efforts did help bring about a temporary pause in North Korean missile and nuclear tests. It has also increased inter-Korean dialogue, and brought forth an invitation from the North Korean leader to Moon for a leaders summit soon in Pyongyang.
But Moon’s opponents at the rally object to his conciliatory treatment of the North Korean Olympic delegation, especially allowing North Korean General Kim Yong Chol, who is under sanctions for his alleged role in orchestrating a deadly attack on a South Korean warship in 2010, to lead his country’s Olympic delegation. They also criticize the South Korean leader for not strongly confronting the visiting North Korean officials about nuclear and human rights violations.
The large demonstration in Seoul on Thursday was aimed at galvanizing public support to remove President Moon from power, as mass protests forced the impeachment of his conservative predecessor.
Thursday’s rally was the first large scale political protest in the country since President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment last year over her alleged involvement in a corruption and bribery scandal. Park was charged with colluding with her close friend Choi Soon-sil to force large Korean conglomerates like Samsung to contribute millions of dollars to two nonprofit organizations.
The Park corruption scandal triggered months of nationwide protests demanding her ouster. Many of Park’s conservative supporters in the national assembly voted for impeachment after her approval rating dropped to below 10 percent.
In the wake of the scandal, Moon and his progressive Democratic Party easily won the early presidential election in May 2017. The South Korean president enjoyed an early approval rating of more than 80 percent. But it has dropped in recent weeks to the mid 60s because of concerns over his accommodating outreach to North Korea.
Meanwhile former President Park has been held in prison since she was forced from office last year and has been on trial for bribery, abuse of power and other charges related to her scandal.
The ex-president claims she is innocent and has refused to attend the trial. Legal experts question the strength of the prosecution’s case that has produced only circumstantial evidence linking Park to political payoffs arranged by her friend Choi.
“According the prosecution’s argument, there are 140,000 pages of evidence. The fact that there is a teeming amount of (indirect) evidence paradoxically means that there is no (clear) evidence,” said Lee In-ho, a professor of law at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.
Prosecutors this week asked the court to issue Park a 30-year sentence. The final verdict could come in the next month. Her alleged co-conspirator, Choi Soon-sil, was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Park’s supporters at Thursday’s rally complained that the former president’s trial is a case of political persecution.
“Many protesters today they believe the prosecutors have failed to prove the guilt of President Park. So they are asking for the immediate release of President Park,” said Chulhong Kim, a spokesman for the protest organizers and a professor at the Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary in Seoul.
President Moon did not address the protest in Seoul on Thursday, which is a holiday commemorating Korean resistance to the Japanese occupation. Instead he spoke out against Tokyo’s refusal to take further measures to resolve the comfort women issue.
Moon had declined to negate a 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea to settle all grievances related to the thousands of women in Asia, known as “comfort women,” who were forced to work as prostitutes or sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. The deal included a vague written apology from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and an $8 million donation to a victims fund.
Yet at the same time Moon has called on Abe to do more to satisfy criticism from comfort women and their supporters, and said South Korea would not accept the $8 million donation from Japan.
Tokyo has refused to renegotiate the comfort women agreement, and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga described Moon’s comments as “extremely regrettable.”
Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.