Out of the hagwon and into the streetsOn a Tuesday last month, riot police quickly lined up in front of the Central Government Complex in Gwanghwamun. About 20 or so protesters were assembling in front of the Education Ministry, trying to set up a table in front of the gate.
“You can’t hold protests here. You are blocking the entrance,” yelled an official from the government complex.
“This is a news conference, not a protest,” someone from the group yelled back.
Shouting ― and wrangling over the table ― continued for a while until the group decided to move aside. They began chanting, “Let students be free.”
It isn’t unusual to see a demonstration in front of a government office in Gwanghwamun. But this group of protesters looked different. About half of them were teenagers in school uniforms.
It was Nov. 2 ― officially deemed Student Day, although few people know that ― and the activists were protesting school dress codes, among other educational policies.
“My teachers won’t like it if they find out that I was here today,” said Choi Da-wun, 17, who was reluctant to name the school she attends. “But I am here because my school is one of many that are still restricting us on hair and uniforms.”
Da-wun said she once got in trouble for wearing a turtleneck on a winter day instead of the school blouse. She was angry enough about such rules that she’d skipped classes to attend the protest.
“Why can’t we wear sneakers to school? Our feet hurt from dress shoes,” she said, reading into a microphone from a speech she’d prepared.
“Our hair has to be bobbed, or has to be in a ponytail shorter than 20 centimeters,” she said. “I heard that in boys’ school, teachers carry around clippers to chop off part of your hair if it looks too long.”
The next student at the microphone talked about after-school supplementary lessons that continue past dark. Another read a speech opposing college admission officials’ reliance on high school academic rankings, in which he cited the recent grade inflation controversy.
Korean high school students certainly have nothing on their elders in college when it comes to putting on public demonstrations. But in recent years, more of them have been standing up publicly against what they see as infringement on their rights ―even if the right to wear a turtleneck may not be as urgent an issue as, say, whether the National Security Law is repealed.
“This is a big change from the past, when Korean minors were considered shy, passive and obedient,” said Choi Yoon-jin, a professor of adolescent science at Chung-Ang University.
“Asian students are still far behind Western students in freely saying what they want, but these days young Koreans have become very outspoken,” Ms. Choi said.
She said Korean students were once afraid of being branded troublemakers if others found out that they had interests beyond their academic pursuits.
“But now there are tens of civic organizations, and about a hundred more Web sites created by teens themselves, interested in a wide range of social problems involving teenagers,” she said.
Some say the recent upswing in teen activism began in 2000 with a campaign called “No Cut,” in which teens demonstrated against school regulations governing the length of students’ hair.
The Education Ministry, which at the time still issued recommendations on hair length and student uniforms, ultimately announced that it would stop doing so. That fact left some ministry officials bemused about the recent Student Day protest.
“We let schools impose their own restrictions on their students, so I don’t understand why they are coming to us to protest,” one ministry official said.
Teen activists said that even though the ministry had stopped issuing the recommendations, individual schools still tended to impose conservative standards. The teens believed the ministry should intervene to maximize students’ freedom.
“Principals and some teachers are still very conservative, and students were disappointed when not much changed even after the ministry announced the lifting of hair restrictions,” said Lee Geun-mi, an adult activist with the civic group Heemang who joined the Student Day protest in support of the teens. “But it was difficult for students to speak out against school policies.”
Kim Ji-hun, 18, a college freshman who has been working with a teen advocacy group, says her interest in activism caused problems for her before she entered college. When she was in high school, she said, people regarded her as a rebel of some sort.
“People here think it is most appropriate for high school students to think only about getting into college,” Ms. Kim said. “Moreover, high schoolers are considered timid, apolitical and even lacking enough sense to decide what is right and wrong.”
Ms. Kim is currently involved with a teen civic group called “Lower the Voting Age to 18.” She said she has been gathering signatures and visiting lawmakers to try to get the voting age reduced from 20.
For Ms. Kim, who says she has been interested in civil rights since she was 16, not being able to vote is frustrating.
“People think if you are under 20, you are helpless. But Lower the Voting Age is run by teens from 16 to 19,” she said.
“Frankly, I find more thoughtless people on college campuses than at my old high school playground,” she added.
Lower the Voting Age to 18 was formed in June by more than 300 students from 30 different teen groups. Some of those same groups had already joined forces separately to form the Commission on Religious Freedom in Schools, which organized about 4,000 students to support 18-year-old activist Kang Ui-seok.
Mr. Kang, a third-year student at Daekwang High School, was on a hunger strike to protest the school’s religion class requirement.
“Korean teenagers’ activism was scattered in the past,” said Kim Young-ji, an assistant researcher at the Korea Institute for Youth Development. “So they weren’t recognized. Also, they were good at criticizing, but had no alternative plans.”
Ms. Kim says the Internet has had a great deal to do with the new teen activism. “The common use of the Internet was a clinching factor that brought the teens together,” she said. “Before, their sources of information about the outside world were very limited until they went to college.”
Shin Jeong-hyeon, 22, head of Chungjung Net, an online political group for teens, says teenagers are mature enough to be involved in politics.
“Before the general election was held in April of this year, Chungjung Net conducted a mock election for teenagers to choose their favorite lawmakers and parties. And the results were very similar to those of the actual election the adults had later,” Mr. Shin said.
“Some adults said teenagers would make illogical or thoughtless decisions, but the mock election showed they were wrong,” he added.
Last year, Chungjung Net held a mock election in which teenagers themselves were the candidates. Teen candidates interested in becoming a “cyber lawmaker” posted their pictures, their political platforms and information about themselves. The idea was to familiarize more teenagers with the electoral process.
The winner, Kim Seong-woo, now 17, said it was “thrilling to run as a candidate even though it was just for fun.”
He had made three campaign pledges: to stop adults from continuing election bribes, to send humanitarian aid to North Korea and to convert the College Scholastic Ability Test to a “pass/fail” system.
“The pledges reflected my hopes, and I think a lot of teen voters agreed with them,” said Seong-woo. “But I won the voters’ support because I pointed out that the most important change should be in our right to speak and act without being seen as delinquents by the elders.”
by Lee Min-a