SEOUL: Tens of thousands of men, women and children joined one of the largest anti-government protests seen in Seoul for decades on Saturday (Nov 12), demanding President Park Geun-Hye’s resignation over a snowballing corruption scandal.
Police had planned for 170,000 people, but organisers said they expected a final turnout of up to one million 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 with the previous protests, the huge crowds were extremely mixed, with high school children rubbing shoulders with retirees and young couples marching with babies or young children.
“Park Geun-Hye must resign because she didn’t take good care of our country,” said 11-year-old student Park Ye-Na.
The steady beat of drums and chanted slogans made for a raucous but largely peaceful atmosphere, with banners everywhere mocking Park and calling for her to step down immediately.
In a televised news conference on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Joon-Sik had voiced concerns at the possibility of “illegal collective action or violence” and urged the protestors to respect police barriers.
The scandal engulfing Park is focused on a close personal 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 personal relationship 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 record lows.
“We are feeling the weight of the serious public mood,” presidential spokesman Jung Youn-Kuk acknowledged Friday.
In an effort to soothe public anger, Park has issued several apologies, 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. She needs to step down,” said 66-year-old Cho Ki-Mang.
It was set to be one of the biggest anti-government rallies since the pro-democracy protests of the late 1980s and early 1990s.