It was April 11, 1960 when the corpse of Ju-yeol Kim, an ordinary 17-year-old boy, with a can of tear gas stuck onto his face, was found floating on the coastal waters of Masan, Korea. The event was a direct cause of the April Revolution against the autocratic government of South Korea, which was a movement with students as the central force. In correlation, the third day of November in South Korea is designated as Student’s Day. The Sungkyun Times (SKT) explores the past and present of Korean student activism to let Kingos think of how Koreans have achieved freedom in their history.
Korean Student Activism
What is student activism?
Student activism is usually practiced by university students who struggle against the system and the authority in order to pursue freedom of their studies and autonomy of themselves and universities. Compared to the older generations, students are regarded as having a pure and strong sense of justice. In addition, for not being a head of household, they usually do not carry the burden of caring for a family, which causes them to look objectively at reality.
How has Korean student activism influenced
The origin of Korean student activism can be traced back to Confucianist education and the practice of the intellectual nobilities in the Joseon Dynasty. Yuso, a collective declaration of intention which demanded the correction of state affairs, and Gwondang, the boycotting of classes of Sungkyunkwan Confucian scholars, are examples of early student activism in Korea. Meanwhile, Korean student activism can be understood well in the specific context of modern Korean history, which can be divided into Japanese colonial era and post-liberation.
Japanese Colonial Era
The Japanese colonial era refers to the time when Koreans suffered from the suppression of Japanese imperialism. At the time, the goal of Korean student activism was national independence. Students played a leading role in the March 1st Movement, the June 10th Movement, and Gwangju Student Independence Movement, which are recognized as the three main independence movements in Korea. They not only participated in the protests, but also began the protests. Moreover, they led unified, nationwide students strikes continuously after the March 1st Movement, which implies that the anti-Japanese consciousness of Korean students had grown consistently. In consequence, the March 1st Movement led to the June 10th Movement and the Gwangju Student Independence Movement, and made them national movements.
The time after liberation can be divided into the time right after liberation and the time period between the 1960’s and the 1980’s. The former time was a period of complete disorder due to the controversy over the Trusteeship of Korea and the establishment of separate governments in the South and North. Confrontations between democratic camps and socialist camps intensified the ideological conflicts among students. During the other period, f rom the 1960’s to the 1980’s, the whole country was unstable due to a dictatorial government seizing power. The students’ goal was to realize liberal democracy. In this time period, students publicly opposed the military dictatorship by going on a protest march. The April Revolution in 1960, the movement against the Treaty on the Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965, and the Bu-Ma Democratic Protests in 1979, which called for the abolition of the Yushin regime, show that this period was the heyday of Korean student activism. The students’ devoted movements motivated the whole nation under suppression and distortion of information to form and disseminate public opinions of the protests. As a result, students played a significant role in the fall of the dictatorial government and in the June 29 Declaration, a special declaration for a direct presidential election system, which have significantly contributed to the democratization in Korea.
|Protesting Students in April Revolution / library.419revolution.org|
What Makes Korean Student Activism Special?
According to the Academy of Korean Studies, Korean student activism gains its distinctive features due to its persistence and political nature.
Since March of 1960, student movements have taken place almost every year in Korea. The recent student movements such as student strikes in France which aimed for social reform in May, 1968, the student movement against the Vietnam War in the United States (US), and many different student movements in China, Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand are relatively temporary compared to Korean student activism. Since Korean students carried on their struggles over a long period of time and left a clear mark in Korean history, Korean student activism takes a leading place in the history of student movements worldwide.
Student activism can be explained by psychological traits and political traits. The former means that students express their psychological discontents by showing defiant attitudes to the older generation. On the other hand, the latter means that students respond to ethnic oppression and social contradictions. Korean student activism is mostly related to specific political changes manifested in the forms of pro-democracy movements, labor movements, and unification movements. Following this fact, Korean student movements are based on concrete ideas and political contradictions rather than rebellious actions toward the older generation. Thus, they are better explained with political traits.
Crisis and the Present of Korean Student Activism
Crisis of Korean Student Activism
As mentioned above, Korean student activism has influenced society significantly, and was popular even until early 1990. After 1991, however, the main agents of student movements have disappeared rapidly, which led to a decrease in Korean student activism.
The main causes of the crisis can be divided into political and economic causes, and the interior causes of Korean student activism. One of the main causes of the crisis was related to socio-economic issues. Korea finally saw the foundation of a civilian government in 1993. The end of the ruling of military authorities and the realization of democracy, which were the goals of Korean student activism from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, were enough to lessen Korean student activism. Moreover, Koreans were faced with the IMF financial crisis in 1997 when Neo-liberalism was introduced. The students became busy caring for their own lives due to side effects of Neo-liberalism, such as employment instability and polarization. Meanwhile, there were also causes inside the student activism camps. Most students had settled for the status quo after democratization, and they could not actively participate in movements. Furthermore, many students thought that participating in political movements may affect their employment prospects. According to these changes, Korean student activism has lost its power, and political apathy in students has grown strong.
|Present-day Movements of Undergraduates / stu.workerssolidarity.org|
Present of Korean Student Activism
There are three changes in current Korean student activism compared to the past Korean student activism: changes in scale, changes in ways, and changes in contents. It is a fact that Korean student activism has greatly weakened. In contrast to students protesting together by the thousands, students usually just act at an individual level in modern times.
In addition, students now make the best use of expanded communication space achieved through democratization and the development of technology. In line with these efforts, many academic associations, seminars, and communities based on Social Network Services (SNS) among students are vitalized these days. Furthermore, some students gather to form a movement and circulate a petition, while others take legal actions against related organizations. For example, recently, there have been claims for the refund of unjust enrichment against universities by the Student Coalition Against Admission Fees, a movement Korea University students also took part it. In addition, students of Ewha Women’s University gathered to reclaim education rights in front of the Dean’s office.
Another remarkable change is the change in contents. In contrast to the past, students tend to be mostly concerned with personal issues these days. Few students fight against political issues, but many pay attention to issues that are related to their own lives, such as university tuition fees and part-time jobs.
Nowadays, students, especially undergraduates, continue Korean student activism by participating in clubs and organizations such as “Saramdeul: Network for Human Right” and “Peace Butterfly Network” in the wind of change.
|Declaration of Sungkyunkwan University Students|
The SKT interviewed an undergraduate student who is participating in student movements to provide Kingos a better understanding of the present situation of Korean student activism.
Please introduce yourself to Kingos.
I am a student at Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU). I participate in an academic association where we profoundly study about problems in our society and their causes. In addition, I upload some posts about social problems on SNS, talk about them with friends, and often take part in the movements.
What made you participate in the movements?
I was, and am, an ordinary student. When I was a freshman, I met some seniors from an academic association and decided to join them. As I studied and participated in the activities, I found the hidden side of our society, and participating in movements seemed meaningful for myself and society.
What do you think student movement or activism is?
I think it is not something secret and mysterious. Even studying in an academic association concerning social issues, and raising one’s voice can be a kind of movement these days.
How is Korean student activism going along?
There are hundreds of problems in our society. As far as I know, there are many organizations or clubs in SKKU concerning issues such as unemployment, rights of laborers, gender equality, sexual minorities, feminism, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), and so on. When there is a problem, there are various ways to solve it. We may protest at Gwanghwamun Plaza, or we can open a discussion and consider some solutions in universities. Some students even take part in a nationwide organization.
When did it feel fruitful?
I have been somehow critical toward society since childhood. After my college admission, I realized the causes for my emotional criticism. Now, I can logically tell myself why social problems annoy me, and think of what I can do in such situations. I also felt proud when my friends, seniors, and juniors were changing along with me. Most of them were indifferent and somehow skeptical to social issues at first, but they are now turning their attentions to society.
Why do you think student activism is necessary?
If you look at world history, people who brought changes are not just one or two people of great intellectual capacity. It was many people who lived in society. The reason we need to participate is that society will not change if we do not. Furthermore, identifying social issues and considering what we can and should do to solve problems is important, because it helps us move.
Any last words you want to share with Kingos?
When thinking of Korean student activism, one may feel that it may be a part of a conspiracy. I think, however, that student activism is about being concerned with and participating in social problems even if they seem trivial. It is hard to focus your interest on those issues for many personal reasons these days. Nevertheless, the possibilities to better our society would open, even if at a slow pace.
Korean students played key roles in the development of independence and political democratization of their own country in accordance with chronological changes. It is not that students need to take part in the “movements,” but that many great Korean students have changed Korean history by their dedicational movements. Praising Korean Student’s Day, we may appreciate innumerable sacrifice of students, who have led our society for the better future.
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