2020-06-23 01:47 (Tue)
Feature: Democratic Evolution and Student Protests in Korea
Feature: Democratic Evolution and Student Protests in Korea
  • The KAIST Herald Reporters
  • Approved 2019.05.24 23:10
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Democracy Version 1.0: A Long Road Ahead

By Juhoon Lee Editor-in-Chief

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached in March 2017 and currently faces a 25-year imprisonment sentence

After the grueling and damaging oppression by the Japanese, the Korean government tasted the brief sweetness of “independence” in 1945. The land was full of hope, but devoid of a government to rule the recently liberated people.

What awaited the Korean people after the end of World War II and subsequent termination of the Japanese occupation was a trial run of democracy. 1948 marked the founding of the Korean First Republic; it was the predecessor of many to come, which were decidedly not very “republican”. President Syngman Rhee and his administration routinely carried out massacres and the suppression of the liberal faction as the American forces had done while they briefly governed the country between 1945 to 1948 However, the country would soon erupt into ideological conflict that will tear the country apart in even greater ways than an outside force ever had.

After the Korean War left the country at ground zero, Rhee regained the mantle in the 1954 election. His oppressive and cruel-and-unusual retaliation against the opposition returned. By 1960, student protests occurred all over the country, especially in the city of Masan. After a student protestor’s body was found at a harbor, people’s anger finally manifested into action. Despite ever increasing opposition by the people, however, Rhee was reinstated shortly after. The Second Republic ultimately tried to undo many of the controlling policies left by Rhee, but its weak core allowed it to be easily toppled by a coup d’état that signaled the stagnation and backtracking of democracy for years to come.

The many republics, all failing to capture the essence of democracy, forced its way through the never-ending student protests that battled each administration. Even as the generations changed, the newer, younger students replaced those who left in search of economic and familial stability. In this feature, we discuss the impact and history of student protests in Korea and how it has shaped the political scene and has led to the democratization of Korea as we know today; even including the most recent cases of Park Geun-hye and the second wave of student protests in 2016. We also look into the post-Park era of student activism and protests and how the young will impact the political scene to come.


Death of Students Leads to Birth of New Republic

By Hongseok Lee Head of Society Division

The frequency and intensity of student protests reached its peak in the Fifth Republic. Unlike those in the previous republics, the center of student protests moved from high school students to those in universities. The request for democracy and right to directly vote for the presidency were mutual amongst the student organizations in universities. However, the government responded to these requests with massacres, such as that of Gwangju in 1980, and indiscriminate arrests followed by torture. The government routinely accused everyone who protested of being communists working to overthrow the government.

Lee Han Yeol is supported by another Yonsei student after the shot

It is necessary to understand that the movements for democracy weren’t as well received as it is now. Unlike today, the only sources of information were the press and media, both of which were controlled by the government. The torture of detained protesters was covered up, and the public could only guess at the cruelty inflicted by the government. Also, since the media emphasized the violent parts of the protests, a large proportion of the public was reluctant to join the students, even if they empathized with the sentiment motivating them.

Yet, the student protests did not cease. Bak JongCheol, then-president of the Seoul National University Student Council, was one of the more famous activists. On January 14, 1987, Bak was arrested by the police and was tortured for the whereabouts of one of his seniors. During repeated water torture, Bak lost consciousness and soon was suffocated to death. The government tried to cover up his cause of death and denied any usage of torture, but reporter Shin Sung-ho published the truth in the paper DongA Ilbo. The publication created uproar. The idea that the government murdered an innocent student and tried to deny it turned the public opinion against the authoritarian government and President Chun Doo-Hwan. The murder of Bak stimulated pro-democracy organizations to unite and provoked more frequent protests. Students demanded the dissolution of the government regime and the public started to join the students. The new sense of comradery was shown in the action of civilians who prevented the police from arresting Korea University students protesting about Bak’s death. It was a sign that the government was losing public support.

On June 9, 1987, the major universities, including Yonsei University, were preparing for an organized, simultaneous protest. However, when students tried to leave the Yonsei campus, the police blocked them with tear gas. Witnesses later testified that the police purposely aimed the tear gas shells directly towards the students, fatally hitting Yonsei student Lee Hanyeol on the back of his head. The moment Lee fell was captured by a photographer from the Associated Press. This photograph made the front page of both the New York Times and Jungang Ilbo. The news of another state-murdered student sparked outrage within Korean society. The dictatorship completely lost its moral standing in the public’s eyes. Civilians joined the students in protests and by June 18, the number of protesters reached 1.5 million.

The intensity of student protest reached its zenith and the capability of police to stop them had reached its limit. Everywhere, the police failed to scatter the protesters and could only manage to protect a few strongholds. In Seoul, a number of police stations were set on fire. In Daejeon, all police lines that surrounded the universities were breached and the mayor of Daejeon was forced to permit a protest march straight across the city.

As the limit of the police force became evident, President Chun declared martial law and allocated the army against the protestors. If this order had been carried out, it would have been a greater massacre and tragedy than those of the Gwangju Uprising. Some even predict that it may have led to a civil war. However, this was not taken into action as the army was reluctant to suppress the protestors. More importantly, the United States threatened to destroy the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of Korea and the United States. The treaty was one of the key bases on which the army pledged support to Chun. Hence, Chun was forced to step down and a new constitution based on democratic principles was declared. It was the birth of the Sixth Republic. Ever since, the constitution has upheld democratic values and will do so for times to come. Within such great change, the role of the students was essential; the achievement would have been unachievable without them.


The Park Impeachment: Tracing Its Unusual Spark

By Sean Tristan De Guzman Staff Reporter

The corruption scandal of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye has gone down as perhaps one of the biggest scandals in Korea’s present political scene. It highlighted the modern resurgence of student activism, which arguably wavered after the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, a pivotal point of Korea’s quest for democracy. Yet this resurgence tells a completely different story, in that technological advancements have provided accessible avenues for information to spread to even the distant perimeters of the nation — something that could have turned tables during the Gwangju Uprising. This allowed students from several universities across the country to be informed and participate in the boycott of their lectures to crowd the streets for protests.

The burning fire within their hearts has actually been ignited even before the scandal’s uprising. The former president particularly incurred the outrage of the public after her administration’s slow response and poor disaster management during the tragic Sewol Ferry incident in 2014 that killed 304 passengers and crew. The people were infuriated with the government’s blatant disregard for public safety and lack of accountability regarding the accident. Demands for an explanation on the situation grew exponentially, only to receive tight-lipped responses and apathetic statements. It wasn’t until the 2016 school protest at Ewha Womans University when the controversy escalated into a grand-scale national crisis. Students were initially protesting against the unilateral establishment of a new college named “Future LiFE” without prior student consultation. The rally was supposed to be a university-related movement, yet the students were surprisingly met with violent police intervention and tear-gas attacks. The plan for the new college was eventually canceled, but the seemingly unnecessary involvement of the police raised suspicions about the wrongdoings of the university president and his potential ties with the government, which strengthened calls for his resignation.

This originally apolitical move unveiled crucial leads to the malpractices during the Park administration. News media outlets revealed Park’s close confidante relationship with Choi Soon-sil, who had no significant government position at the time yet freely accessed confidential documents. She had even been pulling the strings for critical administration decisions, presidential speeches, and policy making. She was charged for embezzling money from large family-owned business conglomerates called chaebols, and using her influence to earn the favor of the Ewha administration towards accepting her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, to the university.

The driving force of students during the rallies for the ouster of Park ran deeper than its sheer political implications. The controversy simply reminded them once more that they live in a hierarchy-based society that favors the already powerful individuals at the top, conversely depriving ordinary citizens of ways to better their economic situations. Breaking through the working class is a tough transition to overcome for fresh graduates of even top-tier Korean universities, yet those who are part of families with connections can grace through with ease. Yet those who do manage to find jobs tend to suffer undesirable working conditions that have long existed in the employment world.

Which is why the Ewha admissions scandal is understandably close to heart for most university students. It encouraged student councils particularly to be more strongly vocal not only in the impeachment agenda, but also in addressing their university-level issues. The scandal proved to be the trigger that awakened the capabilities of students to bring forth necessary change.

The Ewha protests were the prologue of the long series of peaceful national-scale movements embodying unity and patriotism, and for a historically relevant encounter to be spearheaded by the youth, it sends a bold statement: the future is safe in the hands of the next generation.


Student Activism Post-Park Geun-Hye: Protests Prompt the Emergence of Grassroots Groups

By Nicholas Bosworth Staff Reporter

Though the Park Geun-hye protests in 2016 did not drastically change the nature of student activism in Korea, they have prompted some political student groups to restructure so that they can be more active in the future, and this could be the herald of greater political change in Korea.

The May Day Protests in Seoul were attended by delegations from several different political groups, as evidenced by the numerous flags

Following the former president’s impeachment and the 2017 presidential elections, student activism in Korean politics seems to have relaxed and returned to the pre-Park era. Particularly political students attend protests that interest them, while the majority of students are uninvolved. What is interesting is that in other countries, the students involved in the 2016 protests would be actively recruited by political groups seeking to co-opt the students’ activism. This recruitment isn’t as obvious in Korea; instead, it seems as though the protests were the catalyst for much deeper political change.

At the “Yellow Vest” protest in Lyon, France, attended by a KAIST Herald reporter in January, speakers had clear political agendas. Each would start with “comrades” or “compatriots”, depending on their allegiance, and go on to explain why the gathered protesters should enroll in their party. Similarly, at a climate change rally in Australia, speakers would encourage members to vote against the conservative government and join one of the progressive parties. It was notable that at both events, speakers would go out of their way to talk to the younger participants of the gathering. This doesn’t happen at protests in Korea.

In a May-Day protest here in Korea attended by our reporter, the protesters and speakers seemed uninterested in the students attending. Everyone stuck to their preformed political faction and those crossing faction lines were viewed with suspicion. The experiences of Herald staff were mirrored by KAIST student Changsun Lee, who attended protests in 2013 over the election of Park Geun-hye. Lee notes that his experience at the protest was “very isolated”; he attended with family and friends and they were left alone at the event.

However, despite the absence of active recruitment at Korean protests, student politics groups still find protests to be useful meeting places. In an interview with The KAIST Herald, member of the Dangerous’ Reads group Ohchan Kwon described how protests allow small student groups to find each other and reform into larger organizations. Kwon specifically detailed how the 2016 protests prompted the creation of the “League of Left Youth in Daejeon”, a catch-all organization that brought together all the minor student political groups in the Daejeon area. He explains, “We [the student politics groups in Daejeon] barely met each other before the protest, but afterwards, we found that we had similar political views and goals even though we joined different parties / NGOs.” When asked about the future of the League, Kwon elaborated, “We created this group to be able to collectively act on social movements, we are encouraging potential members to visit our Facebook (facebook.com/dangerousreads/) and come to our weekly meetings.”

Kwon’s experience is not unique. In an interview with a Seoul-based member of the Marxist book club who wished to remain anonymous, The KAIST Herald found a very similar story to Kwon’s. It appears like student activism post-Park is less characterized by the recruitment of students into pre-existing political groups, but is more characterized by students forming their own groups after meeting at the protests.

In a 2015 article, Korea University International Studies Alumnus Alec Haskard contended that Koreans are “greatly dissatisfied” and “distrusting” of their political institutions, leading to the formation of new grassroots political groups. He predicted that Korean political institutions will be forced to change as public pressure increases.

Following the long history of student activism in Korea detailed in this month’s feature, student organizations like the League of Left Youth in Daejeon may well be the heralds of Haskard’s change. Whether the grassroots organizations last and become their own institutions, or whether they are absorbed by existing parties, remains to be seen.

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