[LETTERS to the editor]Students find a voice in beef protests

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[LETTERS to the editor]Students find a voice in beef protests

Since President Lee announced that Korea would fully open its beef market to the U.S. on April 17, many people have protested. The first candlelit vigil was held at Cheonggye Plaza on May 3 at 6 p.m. But it wasn’t the first time that people gathered with candles.

When two young middle school girls were run over by a U.S. Army tank in 2002, and when former President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached by the opposition party, the plaza at City Hall was filled with angry but silent people, holding candles. At those times, the crowd was made up mainly of adults. But, according to police, at the May 3 protests, about 6,000 out of the 10,000 were teenagers.

Considering teenagers tend to pursue their own personal fun and excitement, it’s an interesting phenomenon. They are supposed to be indifferent to “boring” political issues. So what brought students to Cheonggye Plaza? Here are some possible causes for their motivation:

Korean society used to deprive teenagers the right to participate in social issues, but the recent protests show an improvement brought on by democratic education. Teenagers were all born in the 1990s, when democracy was taking root, and they’ve learned that people can have opinions that go against the government. And they also learned they have the right to express their opinions. Teenagers oppose importing American beef, so they are taking action.

The issue about American beef and mad cow disease is closely connected to the teenagers’ own lives. They think it’s a matter of their human rights. First of all, they are worried that they will be the biggest victims. One 17-year-old student, Kwon Hee-ju, said, “If U.S. beef is imported, it will definitely be provided by the school meal service. We don’t want to eat what is not verified, so I’m here to stop it.” This plea seems to be reasonable because teenagers will be consumers for a long time. They are already used to the Western diet.

Besides meat and bones, we consume beef through seasonings and processed food. And we even use cosmetics containing materials extracted from cows. So it’s not as simple as President Lee Myung-bak’s logic when he said if you don’t like American beef, don’t eat it.

That’s why they came to the streets.

The Internet has also helped teenagers keep at the center of the issue. It is believed that the first person to start an impeachment petition aimed at President Lee was a second-grade high school student in Gyeonggi. Known as “andante,” he started this movement on April 6.

This generation plays, communicates and shares its feelings via the Internet as if it were alive. The Internet is a friend they can always contact easily, that’s why the news about the vigil circulated so fast.

Unfortunately, they have also spread pseudo-scientific and exaggerated rumors, causing groundless panic and making students’ efforts seem too emotional.

Some aspects of candlelit vigils are similar to those of a festival or a concert. Lots of people, celebrity speeches and famous singers are enough to draw teenagers. One teenage participant said, “I came here to see Yun Do-hyun and just for fun!” The students always want to escape from the pressure of exams and the vigil can be an exit. Also, students feel important just by being there, and it can be a nice excuse to cut class.

“I’m just curious about what it is like and who comes here,” a high school student said. The point is that they forget the stress of exams and are entertained.

Many come to the streets for different reasons. Some, including the Ministry of Education, criticize them, while others, especially the Internet media, seem to support them. But whether the U.S. beef import deal is renegotiated or not, our teenagers will grow through this unusual experience.

Ha Su-a and Hong Seung-hee,

teachers at a middle school in Gyeonggi
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