Pendulum swings right on campuses
A nationwide survey of 2,000 students last year by the JoongAng Ilbo, Chonbuk National University Professor Seol Dong-hoon and Yonsei University Professor Han Jun clearly reflects the trend.
In 2002, 64 percent of the students said they were progressive and 25 percent said they were in the middle. But two years later 45 percent replied they were progressive and 40 percent said they were in the middle.
Meanwhile, a conservative-minded student recently won an election at Catholic University, while many new student associations based on conservative and capitalist values were created this year. These include the New Right Student Association (29 universities) and the Global Leaders Club (20 universities). Also, 200 students from more than 20 universities formed an alliance to participate in the 2005 Seoul Summit: Promoting Human Rights in North Korea, scheduled for next week.
In general, these new conservatives are interested in practical issues such as employment after college and tend to seek solutions within existing systems and ideologies.
For some, whether they are actually conservatives is a matter of debate.
The shift is partially due to disappointment in the Roh administration, which the formerly progressive students voted to power, said Mr. Park.
Others say the shift is part of a waning of activism itself.
“Student activism has lost its influence. These days, students are more interested in individual matters such as developing their abilities rather than grander issues like social justice,” said Jeong Tae-ho, a former student newspaper editor at Yonsei University.
Others say that the upswing in conservatism is nothing new. They criticized progressive groups for being more conservative in reality on issues like diplomacy, politics and human rights.
“Conservatives ― as they are called by progressives ― are more engaged in global trends and North Korean human rights,” said Kim Won-gyeong, a former student body chairman at Kyungpook National University. “More students are leaning toward the right because of a re-assessment that progressives in Korea are not really progressive while liberals are seen as conservatives. Conservatism in Korea has a negative connotation meaning conventional.”
Students cite many reasons for moving towards the right. Declining activism, growing individualism and emphasis on reality are factors. Facing the real world after graduation, students have to embrace the concept of survival of the fittest.
In the meantime, so-called progressive students represented by groups like Hanchongryun sought extreme and violent ways to realize their goals. Those student groups were managed undemocratically behind closed doors.
“Students distrusted student bodies that were controlled by activists because of their long dominance, unilateral propaganda and top-down decision making,” Mr. Kim said. “Students were looking for alternatives and found a fit in conservative ideas. It is desirable that students are no longer indifferent and more engaging than before.”
Unlike the concept of non-activism or impartiality, conservative students are on the opposite end of the spectrum from student activism of the past, say students.
A few years ago, politically impartial students began taking away power from politically minded students in many colleges. The new student leaders focus more on student affairs and have succeeded in moving away from politics.
Conservative students are better organized than impartial students, but they do not have as strong a support base from students in general. Conservative student groups are seeking alliances with existing student groups, but some students are suspicious about who is behind the conservative groups.
“Students generally do not think highly of either progressives or conservatives,” said Shin Ui-cheol, the chairman of the capitalism study association at Seoul National University. “Students feel that progressive students are right about their purpose but not realistic in their approach and that conservative students have no issues to raise except that they are against the existing student activism.”
Students hope that student bodies work harder to represent students in general rather than focus on ideology. They want to have more democratic discussions on the campus, and to promote student rights.
“Whether they are conservative or progressive they need to clearly identify themselves and should bear in mind that they co-exist in the college community regardless of their positions,” said Mr. Jeong, the Yonsei editor.
“The development of society leads to a further differentiation of ideas in college communities,” said Hanyang University Professor Lee Young-hae.
by Baek Il-Hyun, Lim Jae-un