Protesting in Korea and America

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Protesting in Korea and America

Kathleen Stephens
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C. 


Summer camp is a great American tradition. In recent summers I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Sup Sogui Hosu, the Korean language enclave at the famous Concordia Language Villages on the shores of a vast blue lake in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. For decades young Americans who have gone on to positions of national and international leadership have had their first exposure to foreign language and cultures living in these language immersion villages. The Korean village Supho is not only the newest but also most over-subscribed village, its enrollment turbo-charged by the popularity of Korean culture among young Americans of diverse backgrounds. 
 
But this year amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and America’s continuing failure to “flatten the curve,” there are no happy noises of banter and songs in Korean, Chinese, Italian and a dozen other languages along the string of villages on that Minnesota lake. This summer, Minnesota brings to mind George Floyd, whose brutal death at police hands in the Minnesota city of Minneapolis in May catalyzed “Black Lives Matter” protests for racial justice and police reform that have swept the nation.  
 
Those young people who might otherwise have been at summer camp have instead gone elsewhere, including online for study or distraction, or onto the streets to join in the protests. So I found myself on a hot day in July not traveling to Minnesota as I had in past summers for a few fun days by the lake, inflicting my anachronistic Korean on a younger American generation (with much better pronunciation than me and a far more up-to-date vocabulary!), but instead sitting in my office in Washington gazing at a screen filled with 25 teenagers in their bedrooms across the U.S. Summer camp has gone online; a pandemic is not going to stop these kids from learning Korean!  
 
The theme of the day was Korea’s protest culture. The students — or “villagers” as they are called in “camp culture” — had formed groups (virtual, of course) to research and present on one of four events in modern Korean history: the 1960s student protests, the 1980s democratization movement, the anti-American demonstrations of the early 2000s and the candlelight movement of 2016-17. Each group was given a protest song, a photograph, a work of art and poem from the period to study, and reported back to the full group, including me, on what they had learned.  
 
The students’ impressions were insightful, if somewhat alarmingly free of historical context. They were moved by the passion, sacrifice, disillusion and idealism that pervaded these examples of “protest culture,” but they were uncertain what political and societal impact the movements themselves had had. I related to them what I had witnessed on the streets of Seoul in the mid-1980s, when university students, “the conscience of the nation,” were arrested and tortured, and when their demands for democratization, and against police violence, galvanized a nationwide movement that secured a direct election of the president in 1987. I told them of walking through the same streets in 2016, in a prosperous, democratic Korea, but again a street filled with citizens who had decided it was time to come again to the streets to demand the president step down. I postulated that Korean “protest culture” has been a highly effective means of pursuing political goals, and that rather than becoming less relevant with the strengthening of Korea’s democratic institutions and the rise of digital communications, protest culture has evolved and become even more embedded into Korea’s political culture, along with a renewed commitment to the ballot box, as evidenced in the National Assembly elections earlier this year.  
 
Understanding Korea’s politics, and its protest culture, is a worthy and absorbing effort in its own right. At this moment when in America we are experiencing the largest and most sustained civil unrest since 1968, it has a special salience. The students were asked to talk about their own experiences watching or joining protests, what they did and how they decided when, where and how to protest. Learning about the Korean experience made them think more deeply about America’s own history of struggle, and what is going on now.  
 
We Americans are asking ourselves the same questions Koreans have struggled with: How to bridge deep political polarization, and deep-seated inequities in our society and civic institutions? How does a society balance a desire for safety and order with ensuring the right to protest? How do we rebuild trust and capacity in our fraying democratic institutions and practices?  
 
As I write this column, I am watching the memorial service for the late civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, whom I first met in 1978 when I had returned from the Peace Corps in Korea and worked in his office for a brief time. He was already legendary for his bravery in the civil rights protests of the 1960s when, though severely beaten by police, he never abandoned his non-violent principles and his humanity. He became known as the “conscience of the Congress.” One day before he was hospitalized in July for the cancer that would soon take his life, he visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.  
 
When Lewis joined the civil rights movement from a poor, segregated Southern town, his parents urged him just not to “get in trouble.” For the rest of his life, Lewis told that story, but urged others to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” Likewise, he never stopped reminding us that, “the vote is precious; it is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”  
I wish our Supho villagers could have gathered in Minnesota to improve their Korean and learn more about Korea’s inspiring, complicated, unfinished modern journey and its protest culture. Instead they are caught in this season of maelstrom and struggle. But it made learning more about the Korean experience, and reflecting on our shared challenges, more relevant than ever. 
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