중앙데일리

Protests past and present: Crowds cry for change

June 25,2008
Suzanna Samstag Oh
Riots that pull the nation into a state of upheaval are nothing new to Suzanna Samstag Oh.

The former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer arrived in Korea in 1980, in the heat of the violent democratization movement that brought citizens out into the streets in hordes. She recalls one day at Seoul National University, where she went to graduate school.

“I’ll never forget the day I was coming from one of the buildings and there was a particularly violent protest, and there was a very strange smell,” she said.

“It wasn’t tear gas. It was the day that a student had set himself on fire and jumped off the student affairs building. What I was smelling was him burning.”

Modern Korea has been shaped by popular movements, by the force of the mob. Samstag Oh has witnessed firsthand the strength that this country has found in gathering in great numbers.

“In school, we talked about American history a lot, and how we gained our independence, but of course that was 200 years ago. To see Korean society change that fast, right in front of my eyes, was incredible,” she said.

The United States pulled the Peace Corps out of Korea in 1981, before Samstag Oh could complete her two years. Having just started to get comfortable here, she decided to go to school because it would provide her with the visa necessary to stay on in the country. Now, almost 30 years later, she is director of corporate communications at Daesung Group.

Among the wide range of demonstrations that have poured into downtown Seoul in the past few months, Samstag Oh sees those against the Chinese crackdown in Tibet as the most ironic.

“If they had applied the same standards to Korea in 1988 [for the Seoul Olympics], there would have been people all over the world complaining about holding the Olympics in this military dictatorship,” she said. “But once Korea started winning the right to host these international events, things started to change.”

Now, with mass anti-U.S. beef hysteria driving some of the biggest protests the country has seen since Samstag Oh first arrived here, she thinks something is missing from the latest wave of public fury.

“Korea has gone from one extreme to another in about a generation, so there are still some problems,” she said. “People should have been writing to members of the National Assembly, and yet no one seemed to think about that step. They immediately went out and started battling the riot police.”

But of course it isn’t just about beef, she said.

“Whatever the merits or demerits of the beef deal were, that wasn’t the issue. People felt they hadn’t been consulted on the issue, and that was a big miss on the part of the government.”

As a mother of two, she found the best metaphor for the situation in her own family.

“I have to relate it to my children, who are in fourth and fifth grade. They’re at the age when they absolutely rebel if I make a decision without consulting them .... So, of course adults who are taxpayers would want to get involved. What surprises me is that the government was so oblivious to this.

“With a good PR person, you wouldn’t have had this problem,” she added.


By Richard Scott-Ashe Deputy Editor [richard@joongang.co.kr]


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