Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans from across the country crammed into the major thoroughfare of central Seoul on Saturday, in an organized and peaceful protest against the embattled president, Park Geun-hye.
The crowd of at least 500,000 people, according to Reuters, held candles and signs reading "Resign," sang pop songs and patriotic numbers, and marched together toward the Blue House, the presidential home and office complex.
"It's an explosion of their feelings," demonstrator Jinwon Kim says of the crowds. "People are very angry."
Park has twice-apologized for a ballooning scandal that revealed her friend of four decades, Choi Soon-sil, who is the daughter of a self-proclaimed cult leader, was getting advance policy information and speeches with which to advise the president on a range of state affairs. Choi had no government experience or official position, and she is said to have been doing her counseling in secret. Investigators have charged Choi with abuse of power and fraud, as she is accused of peddling her influence to extort huge sums from South Korean conglomerates to enrich herself and her family.
This is the third weekend in a row crowds have showed up to protest the president, and Saturday's was the largest by far. Expecting a mass demonstration, police used lines of buses to block demonstrators from getting too close to the presidential complex itself.
An estimated 27,000 law enforcement, a mix of professional and conscripted officers, stood in riot gear to maintain peace. And despite a swelling crowd that organizers estimated at one million — which would make this the largest protest in South Korean history — the crowd was largely peaceful for the rally that stretched from mid-afternoon into late night.
"I'm not really worried about the future because the people are gathering," Kim said. "So I think our democracy has a bright future. We're getting better and better. Our democracy is developing."
Members of the three main opposition parties in South Korea joined the rally and its leaders took turns on various stages set up along Seoul's main drag.
So far, there's no move to impeach the president, who has another year left in her term. Park has made concessions to try and salvage her job, dismissing senior aides, and allowing lawmakers to appoint a prime minister and give him wide control of domestic affairs.
Her approval rating remains at a dismal 5 percent for the second week in a row. It's the lowest approval number for a democratically-elected president in South Korean history.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In South Korea, public pressure is mounting on the democratically elected president to resign. NPR's Elise Hu reports on why South Koreans have taken to the streets.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: In a demonstration stretching for more than two miles, so many Koreans crammed Seoul's widest avenue you can barely move. And while the huge protest did have a festive feel, the political aims were pretty serious.
JINWON KIM: I want to tell the president that we are angry.
HU: Jinwon Kim is one of the growing number of Koreans wanting Park Geun-hye to step down. Organizers put the crowd count at 1 million people, making this protest the largest in three decades.
JINWON: She acts like she's the queen of this country.
HU: At issue is a cronyism scandal surrounding President Park. Though not yet charged, this week she'll be the first sitting president questioned in a criminal investigation. It's over how much classified information and public policy she allowed a close personal friend with no official post to see and make decisions about. That friend is now charged with abuse of power and fraud as prosecutors dig into whether she used her influence to enrich herself. It's all led to swelling public discontent with entrenched political and economic powers here just as global uncertainty grows about longtime Korean ally, the United States.
MARTIN HAN: (Foreign language spoken).
HU: Demonstrator Martin Han tells us if I can compare our country to a house, if the inside of the house is chaotic, I can't really pay attention to what's going on outside, so we need to resolve what's going on internally first. To make themselves heard, the protesters got within a few football fields of the president's residence Saturday night.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).
HU: Step down, they chanted, thousands of voices strong. The president's spokesman said Park, quote, "heard the voices of the people and realizes the seriousness of the situation." But there's no sign she will resign. Instead, she said, she wants to, quote, "fulfill her responsibilities as president." Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.