Role of student activists evolves during Choi-gate scandal

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Role of student activists evolves during Choi-gate scandal


University students gather in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, during an organized strike to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye on Nov. 25. Students from Sookmyung Women’s University, Dongguk University, and Sungkonghoe University participated in the demonstration. [NEWSIS]

As thousands have gathered in Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul each Saturday over the past seven weeks at vigils held in response to the Choi Soon-sil scandal that broke at the end of October, some chose to express their outrage in a more familiar setting.

A student activist group held peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Seoul the evening of Tuesday Nov. 15 to call for President Park Geun-hye to step down after her recent scandal.

Calling themselves “Seeking Hidden Sovereignty,” the students expressed their opinions artistically and anonymously, wearing white masks and performing traditional Korean music before taking to the streets of Seoul to express their outrage over recent political events. The students gathered in groups across Seoul in four central university districts including Sinchon, Gangnam, Daehangno, and Cheongnyangni, and marched late into the night while holding candles and chanting “resign!” According to the group’s Facebook page, over 1,400 students participated in the protest that night.

“We feel that this is the best way as university students to express ourselves and let our voices be heard during this controversy,” said Ha Tae-kyoung, a Seoul National University student and one of the organizers for the group. “While we recognize the importance of participating in the mass rallies held [in Gwanghwamun], we want to provide opportunities for those unable to attend those demonstrations on Saturdays.”

“In general, when people hear the word ‘protest,’ they think of fierce vigils led by activist groups,” said university student Kam Hee-jin, an organizer of the rally, “which makes some students feel uncomfortable about participating in them.”

Kam added that the organizing team tried to come up with friendly ways to protest to encourage more students to take part. They came up with various ideas like holding quiz sessions about the Choi-gate scandal or marching with masks on.

“I think this student-organized protest is quite different from [candlelight vigils held at Gwanghwamun on Saturdays],” said Jeong Woo-min, a Yonsei University student who participated in the event. “This is a very positive move. Massive vigils are very meaningful and powerful too, of course, but there, we could only stare at the people on the stage. Many students got the chance to speak today. I hope more of these rallies are organized.”

Ha said that the idea for their group was birthed from a suggestion posted anonymously on their university’s online forum. Upon seeing this idea, a group of agreeing students took it upon themselves to make it a reality, spreading messages online through social media. Eventually, they were able to gain support from students across the country, and even took to the streets again on Nov. 24.

Ha explained that even though most of the student organizers of the group were from the same university, they were operating independently of their student council.

“Seeking Hidden Sovereignty” shows a good example of the next stage in the evolution of Korea’s culture of student activism. The new student activism is characterized as being free of ideologies and tackling separate issues instead of dealing with them in one combined anti-government frame in the way that former student activists have in the past. Students organize collective movements flexibly in a bottom-up processes instead of following pre-determined leadership, such as the nationwide federation of university student councils which was active especially in the 1980s and early 90s, in top-down processes. The students can gather easily with the help of new forms of communication such as social media.

This change is meaningful not only for university students but also for Korean society as a whole, as student activism has been a major driving force behind major movements in the country since the mid-20th century.


From top to bottom: Students celebrate the resignation of then-President Syngman Rhee in April 1960; 21-year-old student activist Lee Han-yeol is struck in the head by a tear gas grenade during a student democratization protest held on June 9, 1987; Activists gather at a protest against the military dictatorship of then-President Chun Doo-hwan in June 1987.; A weekly candlelight vigil takes place in Gwanghwamun Square on Dec. 3. [JOONGANG ILBO, NEWSIS]

History of student activism

Throughout the 20th century, student activists were the catalysts in most major regime changes, leading ultimately to Korea’s modern-day democracy. The famous April 19 Revolution in 1960 was launched by students of Korea University after a high school student named Kim Ju-yul in Masan, South Gyeongsang, was killed during a protest against electoral corruption a month prior.

According to historians including Joseph Schouweiller, a professor of International Studies at Hanyang University, the students were an integral part in the development of Korea’s democracy and played a crucial role in the ousting of the first Korean President Syngman Rhee during that year, where over 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets and toppled Rhee’s corrupt regime.

It was Park Gwan-hyun, president of the student council at Chonnam National University who acted as one of the leaders during the May 18 Democratization Movement in 1980 in Gwangju, where students clashed with soldiers to protest the authoritarian rule of military junta leader Chun Doo-hwan. This eventually led to the violence referred to as the Gwangju Massacre, which ended on May 27. Park later died in prison after conducting a hunger strike, and is still honored as a hero in the area.

The horror of the massacre and general unrest of students under authoritarian rule finally turned into a massive demonstration when student council leader Park Jong-chul of Seoul National University was discovered to have been tortured to death in January 1987 because of his involvement in the demonstrations. Later, the death of Yonsei University student protester Lee Han-yeol after being struck by a tear gas grenade in June of that year helped propel major demonstrations throughout the country. The two students became national symbols, and because of the efforts of protesters through the decades, had finally helped the country to end the dictatorship.

“You can’t separate those two - national issues and student life,” a Yonsei University student was quoted as saying from an article by the LA Times in 1987.

Transition to being free of ideologies

In recent years, aspects of student activism have significantly changed, politicians and former student activists agree.

“In the past, students protested with an ideological objective,” said Woo Jun-hee, who teaches politics at Korea University. “They resisted against governmental authority while sticking to certain ideologies like Marxism-Leninism, for instance.”

“Student activism in the past was quite different from what we see these days,” said Cho Hyun-wook, 48, who participated in student protests when he was a university student in the 1980s and 90s. “The first thing we did was choose the political or ideological direction to bring about social change. Then we viewed social issues based on those premises.

“Let’s say a problem occurred. Rather than handling the issue itself, we took them as materials to analyze ideologies to bring about revolution. When an incident occurred, we always thought that it was due to a structural problem, and that’s how student councils brought up the issues. For instance, some claimed that the problem occurred because we were not an independent nation, being influenced by other nations like the United States.

“But from the mid-to-late 1990s, [students activism] began to focus on specific issues. I think that phenomenon has continued to this day, which is quite different from what we had years ago.”

Differences between student activism of the past and present were also spotted through the recent university declarations that demanded the resignation of President Park.

Korea University’s student council had to postpone plans to read out the declaration after its announcement poster was heavily criticized.

At the bottom of the poster was the list of groups who participated in writing the document, and several political groups were included. Among the names were a student branch of the People’s United Party, an opposition party, and also a group attached to Workers’ Solidarity, a labor union.

“Just by looking at the poster, I was sure that the declaration failed to represent the university’s students, since numerous groups with political affiliations participated,” read a comment. “I’m worried about the content of the declaration.”

The poster’s catchphrase “The government killed Baek Nam-gi, but saved Choi Soon-sil,” also triggered much debate. Baek Nam-gi, a farmer and activist, was hit by a water cannon at an antigovernment rally last year, and died on Sept. 25 following a 317-day coma.

“I don’t know why they had to include the Baek Nam-gi case in the catchphrase when it is not the core issue of the Choi-gate scandal,” read another comment.

The student council edited its poster about two hours later, but was again criticized for making very few changes. The same catchphrase was written, only in a smaller font, and the list of participating groups was erased while no announcement was made about forming a new group of writers for the document.


University students march through the streets in Sinchon, participating in a student-organized protest called “Seeking Hidden Sovereignty” held on Nov. 15. The protest was also held in Gangnam, Daehangno and the area near Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. [NEWSIS]

Democratization and the spread of individualism behind the change

According to Woo, there’s historical background to the changes that have occurred over the past 20 years in student activism.

“As our society achieved peaceful changes of regime in the mid-to-late 1990s, citizens began to have confidence about our society and democracy. This worked as one of the reasons for the change of style in student activism. Students in the past lived through a very different period from what students nowadays experience, which naturally leads to different forms of student protests.”

Cho showed a similar opinion. “These days, students are approaching protests from a more liberal point of view,” he said. “This is partially because we now have a democratic nation, unlike back then. I’d say the overall objective is different. In the past, people fought against things like military dictatorship, while our present situation as a democratic nation allows us to demand more pragmatic things.”

The spread of individualism may be another factor. Korea has always been a society heavily influenced by Confucianism, and, as noted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers,” one of the most important cultural values is the respect for hierarchy when making decisions.

Throughout the history of student activism, these cultural characteristics have played a large role in defining the collective identity of student protesters, leading to a frequent shining of the spotlight on university student councils, which have taken on a central leadership role student movements in the past.

But a growing disinterest in student councils has been seen in recent years, culminating to a point where by Nov. 24, five prestigious universities, including Yonsei University, Sookmyung Women’s University, The University of Seoul, and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies found themselves without a single candidate willing to run for their student council election for 2017. Likewise, a candidate for the student council election for Sogang University was unable to gather the necessary amount of nominations in order to run, leading to an empty election.

New channel, new trend and their limits and possibilities

The transition towards individualism among students brought along with it a trend of people who use social media to discover which issues they choose to become involved with.

This was best exemplified in the recent efforts by Ewha Womans University students who utilized social media as well as the university online community website Ewhaian to organize and eventually force the resignation of university’s president, Choi Kyung-hee, in response to the establishment of a controversial continuing education program. Later, the students’ effort gained wider publicity after demonstrations over the admission of Choi Soon-sil’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra to the university.

The events of the student protest were chronicled and updated real-time via an official Facebook page, which made it possible for students to quickly gather and organize a successful demonstration which lasted 86 days.

“I couldn’t participate in an offline meeting because I work full-time,” said a graduate who took part in the sit-in after work, “but I was still able to raise my opinion via Ewhaian. It was easy to forget when the rallies were due to my busy schedule, so I checked the Save Our Ewha [Facebook page] every day to stay attentive.”

The Ewha students utilized online tools made available by social media to regularly debate plans and decisions anonymously, becoming a self-sufficient entity whose decision-making role became synonymous with that of the student council’s authoritative position in the past decades. The council was not excluded from the process, but rather faded in comparison with the actions of other students.

“The Ewha University students were successfully able to stop their school from selling degrees, and it was the results of voluntary actions taken by ordinary students, not the work of the student council,” said Yu Young-hyeon, the president of the Pusan National University Student Council, in a message uploaded to Facebook on Aug. 5. “I am upset that we haven’t yet thought of a way for the student council to be the ones supporting the initiative taken by ordinary students. However, I believe now is the time for the student council to take on a supportive role.”

But some critics say students now tend to take interest in the issues directly related with them instead of finding ways to help society.

“In the past, students cooperated with underprivileged people to hold protests and bring societal change, growing into bigger and more influential groups,” Woo said. “These days, however, student groups are much weaker in power. It would be much harder for present-day student groups to reach other social classes and exert a strong influence.”

“In the past, it was taken for granted that students should be actively involved in social issues, but in our generation, there are students who don’t feel inclined to do so,” said a Seoul National University of Science and Technology student protester during a mass rally at Gwanghwamun on Nov. 10. “I’m not being critical of our generation; it just goes to show that times have changed.”

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