Handwritten appeals from the heart

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Handwritten appeals from the heart

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Students read “Are you okay” posters taped to a Korea University bulletin board on Dec. 15. Since Dec. 10, when a 27-year old business student at Korea University first put up the two posters at the left of this photo, the country has seen posters go up nationwide at more than 100 schools, mostly colleges. In them, the students raise questions about government policies and other social issues that make them feel unhappy. [NEWS1]

Korea’s youth are hurting.

And to communicate their unhappiness with a range of issues, they’ve reverted to a medium that older generations used before the Internet and the mobile revolution: the big-character poster.

Since mid-December, posters have been slapped up at schools across the country, most using some variation on the slogan “Are you okay?”

The writers are not okay - with politics, the stress of school, job hunting and even sexual orientation problems - and they want it to be known.

They find that the modern communication methods they were reared on, like social networking services or Internet bulletin boards, too ephemeral. And so they put felt tip to poster board.

The posters are a cross between prayers, cries from the heart and declarations that they’re mad as hell. Universities are starting to look like they did in the 1980s, when the media was controlled by the dictatorial government and posters were the only way to communicate news and demand democracy.

It began with two posters duct-taped to an old-fashioned bulletin board near a gate at Korea University on Dec. 10. They were hand-printed by a 27-year-old business student named Ju Hyun-woo.

Ju began by lamenting the government’s decision to suspend over 4,000 workers on strike at the Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail), who claim that the government is stealthily trying to privatize the train network.

“Yesterday, thousands of Korail workers lost their jobs for waging a strike .?.?. It was a punishment for opposing a privatization plan that President Park Geun-hye herself declared she would not pursue without a social consensus,” Ju wrote.

He then touched on a range of political and social issues, including dirty tricks played in last year’s presidential campaign, the opposition of residents in South Gyeongsang to high voltage power lines running through their neighborhoods, and the suicides of stressed teens.

At the end of the poster statement, Ju didn’t make a plea for any particular action from his fellow students. But he did ask a question that has now entered the Korean political lexicon.

“So I just wanted to ask you this: Are you okay? Are you okay with yourselves avoiding these issues because they are not your problems? I wonder if you excuse yourselves by saying you’re politically apathetic. If you are not okay, we should speak out. So I want to ask you for the final time: Are you all okay?”

The poster hit some kind of nerve among the young, and similar posters were soon being plastered on the walls of more than 100 schools across the country; mostly universities but also high schools and middle schools.

Word of the posters was spread, naturally, on social networking services and the “Are you okay?” Facebook page created by Ju and a friend had received more than 260,000 likes as of Tuesday.

The movement has surprised older people, who considered teens and Koreans in the 20s politically blase and relatively indifferent to social issues, especially compared to the student firebrands of the 1970s and 1980s.

“Since students don’t make demands [of the government], there are no [education] policies that genuinely look into students’ pain,” wrote an 18-year-old student named Jung Hyun-seok in a poster put up at Hyosung High School in Seongnam, Gyeonggi.

“People have become inured to news that young students commit suicide over school pressure because there have been so many ... And that is why I am not doing okay.”

In her poster at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University, Kang Un-ha laments the lack of rights for sexual minorities in the country.

“I am a male-to-female transgender and a bisexual,” she wrote. “We live in a society that fails to enact a nondiscrimination law for sexual minorities, where discrimination against sexual minorities is absolutely commonplace.”

“One of the reasons I found the poster movement personally resonating is that it makes me question whether I really have been okay with social issues these days,” says Lee Han-seung, a junior at Yonsei University majoring in electrical engineering. “Also these posters do not demand we take any particular action against the government. They simply raise questions about the current government with valid reasoning.”

Big-character posters have been common in China since imperial times and were particularly prominent in turbulent periods like the Cultural Revolution and Democracy Wall Movement of the 1970s. In Korea, the student-led movement against the Chun Doo Hwan government was fuelled by such posters.

“It was the only method through which we could express our demands and accuse the Chun government of dictatorship as the media was under the strict control of the government and only worked as its mouthpiece,” says Song In-bae, a graduate of Pusan National University who participated in the anti-dictatorship movement in the 1980s.

“Only the foreign press could report what was really going in the country, recalls Song, who later served as a social affairs secretary at the Roh Moo-hyun Blue House. “Posters were the only means to let people know what really happened in Gwangju in 1980.”

The posters of the 1980s were violent in their language, calling for struggle, revolution, emancipation and the overthrowing of the government.

“The nature of the Chun regime made the students in the movement somewhat agitated,” says Song.

An analysis by the JoongAng Ilbo of this month’s posters tells a different story. Of the 120,000 words used on 100 posters, “struggle” was only mentioned 17 times. There was no anti-U.S. rhetoric.

One of the issues most often addressed was the fierce competition college students face for job and the fear of becoming irregular or non-salaried workers.

“Even if we land jobs through whatever means, there are no longer jobs that promise lifetime employment,” says one poster at Korea University.

Another poster at Chung-Ang University reads, “I asked myself if I am okay after watching myself struggle preparing for numerous tests and job interviews.”

According to the JoongAng analysis, six words or terms related to employment such as labor, recruitment, part-time and job opening are used 233 times on the 100 studied posters.

Analysts say the posters have provided a new way for the “three give-ups generation” to express its angst.

That moniker refers to people in their 20s and 30s who have given up on dating, marriage and the hope of having kids in a tightened job market and less hope for the future, especially financially.

“Students in college now face the fiercest competition since the 1997 financial crisis,” says Choi Hang-sub, a sociology professor at Kookmin University.

“When I go to a commencement ceremony these days, I feel a sense of agony from the graduates because of worsening job prospects,” says Kim Ki-chang, a professor of social welfare at Korea National University of Transportation. “The posters have become an effective method for students to express their dissatisfaction with the society.

“There was an unnoticed urge among college students to express their wishes and demands for society before this phenomenon. And through the posters, they have come to sympathize with one another and speak out.”


BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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