Friday, May 15, 2009

Protests in Korea

Dear Korean,

This isn't a strictly Korean question, but whenever there is a protest in another country, they always show the police beating the crap out of the protesters and I swear they always show the same stock footage of a tear gas canister smoking, a kid wearing his scarf as a mask throws it back at the cops. But they always call them student riots – are the journalists just too lazy to ID the specific group?

Dan V.

Albuquerque, NM

Dear Dan,

The Korean is only qualified to speak about Korea, so within the context of Korea -- yes, the protesters are generally students.

Why is it always the students who are involved in these protests? The Korean’s own theory is this: students are always in the heart of a revolutionary change (for better or worse) because they are educated enough to know the general state of the world, untied enough to dedicate themselves to a cause that does not directly benefit them, and leisurely enough to have the time to spend on those causes. Uneducated people only concerned with their immediate survival cannot dream of anything greater. Regular folks with regular jobs are too busy to plot any revolutionary change, and sacrificing one’s family on top of oneself is too tough a challenge for most people.

Fitting this pattern exactly, student protests in Korea have an illustrious history. Student protests played an integral role in Korea’s independence movement against Imperial Japan. The March 1 Movement, the greatest display of Korean independence movement on the civilian level, would not have been possible without a wide-scale participation from students of Korea. Notably, Yu Gwan-soon, the heroine of March 1 Movement, was a student at Ewha Womans School.

Student protests in Korea also played an indispensable role in democratizing Korea as well. The first South Korean president was Syngman Rhee, a Princeton graduate who led the Korean independence movement in the United States. However, once became the President, he soon began rigging elections and constitutional amendments such that he could be the president for his lifetime. (The Korean has no doubt that similar type of stuff will go down in Afghanistan and Iraq as well – that’s what happens when democracy is externally imposed on a country that has had no democratic tradition.)

After 12 years of dictatorship, Rhee once again rigged the vice presidential election in 1960, which became his last straw. Student protests began sporadically in March 15, 1960, which was brutally put down by the police and hired political goons. Many people were killed or disappeared. On April 11, the body of Kim Ju-Yeol, one of the disappeared student protestors, was discovered floating on the harbors of Masan. Although initially his cause of death was announced to be drowning, when the protestors stormed the hospital, they found Kim’s body with his skull split by a tear gas shell that went from his eye socket to the back of his skull. Massive nationwide protests followed, culminating at April 19, 1960, which led to President Rhee’s resignation.

[Picture on April 19, 1960. Protesters are storming the presidential residence.]

But Korea’s democratization still had a long way to go. Korea would go through at least three more dictators after Rhee, whose rules were equally authoritarian and brutal. Thus, student protests were a fact of life in Korea all the way up to late 1980s/early 1990s. Students also played a vital role in the most massive protest since the April Revolution: the May 18 Movement, in which several hundred died at the hands of paratroopers sent to suppress the protest in Gwangju in 1980.

The fact that those protests occurred is undoubtedly positive. Without those protests, democracy in Korea did not happen. Because the Korean people fought against the illegitimate dictatorships for themselves, the protests endows the current democratic government a certain legitimacy that an externally imposed democracy could never have.

However, whether or not it is a good thing that the tradition of protests has survived to this day is debatable. Although far from perfect, Korea has a fully functional democracy. When groups of people have a dispute, the institutional mechanisms are present and functional to resolve that dispute in an orderly manner within the democratic system – e.g. through the legislature, courts and elections in the long run.

But the sweet, sweet temptation of protests, which would skirt the institutional process, is constantly present in contemporary Korean politics. It does not help that many of Korea’s current politicians cut their political teeth when they were students, protesting against the authoritarian government. After all, going through the institutional process takes too long, and any change from that process is likely to be incremental. On the other hand, the results of protests are achieved quickly – governments often have capitulated in the matter of months. And when protesting did work, the result was sweeping rather than incremental.

For impatient people who want immediate, large-scale social change – and really, Koreans are nothing if not impatient – protesting is much more attractive than counting on the democratic institutions to serve their functions. Furthermore, it is at least arguable that large-scale protests reflect the popular will, and following such popular will is indeed democratic. For these reasons, the protesting culture in Korea is quite alive and well, although the protests themselves have become much more orderly and peaceful compared to their heyday in the 1980s.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Are those folks storming the presidential residence? That looks like 중앙청, where the National Assembly met.

    Rhee and later presidents have lived in the Blue House, which is almost a kilometer from the point you see here. It's possible they were headed that way, though.

  2. Another marvelous post!

    Your Blog is an absolute delight to read, a genuine treasure trove of rationality in a sea of mindlessness that is the Internet.

    Moreover, our views on Korean things run so parallel (except on sports) that I wonder if you are my more eloquent and cogent alter ego! :)

    On this entry, I love this formulation:

    "The Korean’s own theory is this: students are always in the heart of a revolutionary change (for better or worse) because they are educated enough to know the general state of the world, untied enough to dedicate themselves to a cause that does not directly benefit them, and leisurely enough to have the time to spend on those causes."

    Given that I am (as one Blog commenter has diagnosed me) nothing if not "pedantic (and yes, that was another Shakespeare reference)," I am going to direct you to Samuel Huntington's analysis of student protesters in his Political Order in Changing Societies (which has some stuff on Korea as well).

    Huntington's explanation of why students turn radical echoes your pithy formulation.

    It's been more than a decade since I read the book, but the explanation goes something like this. Huntington begins from the fact that students qua students are intellectuals. And as intellectuals, students feel the gap between the ideal and real more powerfully than most, because of their constant association with lofty (some would say "airy") thoughts. In time, the resulting dissatisfaction engenders the desire to correct or purge the present world of its imperfections.

    Of course, the danger of an intellectual unhinged by the abstract is a perennial danger to the intellectual. In fact, it was diagnosed by both Aristophanes and Plato, in their unforgettable criticism of Socrates.

  3. Korean,

    Nice analysis of the student movement, but your assertion, "yes, the protesters are generally students." seems to imply that the street protests are dominated by students and that is somewhat off the mark. I agree that students still make up a significant portion but you also have to include unionists (KCTU types), assorted civic groups (pro-Pyeongyang fifth columnists, anti-communists and every possible malcontent included) and those I would call tourists who go to protests for the fun of it and have little at stake in the protest. These professional protesters were most evident last spring during the mad cow riots when the downtown was as much as late night street theater as political protest. As well, it's apparent over the years that students are more conservative now and less interested in politics of any kind than they were 10 or 12 years ago when Hanchongnyon could turn Yonsei or Hanyang into war zones at will. These days this group goes begging for membership and campus protests? None.

  4. kush,

    Actually, it's 경무대, the precursor to 청와대.

    Choe BHSN, thank you as always.


    You are right -- the Korean was taking a more historic view. Perhaps the more correct statement was "In the history of protests in Korea, students played a significant role" -- which is more or less the point the whole post makes.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. AAK wrote:
    Actually, it's 경무대, the precursor to 청와대.

    I could be completely wrong, but I don't think that's correct.

    The building with the dome in the background is, almost certainly, the National Assembly building (중앙청). In fact, I think it's the rear of the National Assembly building. I don't believe any of the common buildings in the foreground are the presidential residence.

    My understanding is that in modern-day usage, Kyŏngmudae and Ch'ŏng-wadae refer to the same buildings, with President Yun Posŏn changing the name in 1960 after Rhee went into exile. This site backs that up.

    So if these people are storming the presidential residence, then they should be at a building that is about one kilometer north of the domed building, toward their backs.

    It was a foolish tragedy of nationalism and fear of speaking out that led to the building being razed. If it were still standing, we could settle this bar bet.

  7. kush,

    You got the Korean curious, so he did some investigation.

    To be 100% correct, Rhee never lived in the Blue House; that name did not come to be until Yoon Bo-Seon. The picture is from Korea Democracy Foundation (민주화기념사업회), and the description says "Protesters are charging 경무대." That's what the Korean went by. LinkBUT, the Korean does agree that the building looks awfully like 중앙청. Plus, the official Blue House website confirms that 경무대 used to be at the current Blue House site: Link

    Even if one supposes that the old 경무대 looked radically different from the current 청와대, one would think there should at least be the Namsan in the background.

    So one of two possibilities:

    1. 경무대 looked a lot like 중앙청 (which is possible, because Japanese architecture was kinda similar for all government buildings), and 남산 can't be seen because of a cloudy day, or

    2. Korea Democracy Foundation messed up.

  8. Most 'riots' in Korea aren't really riots but targeted battles between the demonstrators and the police. I was working at Yonsei during the Unification Summer of 1996 and was impressed by the relative order and restraint during the week-long standoff. The West Gate was left unguarded by riot police because unlike the other gates, there were boarding houses and restaurants right outside the gate; had the police engaged the students there, the risk of damage and injury to bystanders would have been high. The students and police confined the violence to each other, and one could avoid choking on tear gas simply by using the West Gate.

    I passed by many other anti-USFK, labor union, and student protests and never felt afraid of either the protesters or the police. I was harassed and insulted a few times by ajosshi bystanders.

    The targeted violence of a Korean protest is less threatening than a post-Championship mob in a major North American city or college town and does not even come close to the level of violence and destruction of a race riot.

  9. Good point Sonagi. Remember, 5.18 is coming soon, and the Korean has an excellent post coming up in memoriam. (The Korean did not write it -- that's why he can guarantee its excellence!)

  10. (The Korean did not write it -- that's why he can guarantee its excellence!)Such modesty is unbecoming of one who graduated from Berkeley, obtained a law degree from a top school, works in Manhattan, stands 6'1" and has a 5'9" girlfriend. It's almost as annoying as Mr. Thersaurus reminding us that he's a non-native speaker even though every sentence of his prose is weighted with an Ivy League vocabulary. I'll bet he went to some northeastern prep school, too.

  11. Sonagi92,

    Come on. There is a conspicuous, obtrusive difference between theKorean's English fluency and my lack thereof.

    By the way, I agree that theKorean is a hot shot (and a young one, too!), but absent further revelation, is the fact that his GF is 5-9 alone evidence?

    If that were the case, I am going to start dating basketball players from henceforth! :)

  12. I meant to say "absent further revelations ABOUT HER"...

  13. Come on. There is a conspicuous, obtrusive difference between theKorean's English fluency and my lack thereof.There is a difference between your written English and thekorean's. The difference is not fluency but word choice and sentence complexity. thekorean writes like he talks. If you talk like you write...

    And thanks for not correcting my misspelling of "thesauraus."

  14. Lady Sonagi says:

    "And thanks for not correcting my misspelling of 'thesauraus.'"

    Why would I ever correct anyone's grammar or spelling errors?

    It would make no sense for the blind to insult the one-eyed for lack of vision.


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