|Kim Soo-hyun, chairman of Jeondaehyup, poses after a Korea Times interview at its newsroom in Seoul on Aug. 3. He characterized the nationwide student organization as a free democracy crusader. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
South Korea's protest culture shifting from Molotov cocktails to satire
By Kang Hyun-kyung
The farcical Operation Busan Landing last year had created a stir on the peaceful Gwangan Beach.
It was a mission conducted by several South Korean university students affiliated with the nationwide student organization "Jeondaehyup," or the Council of University Student Representatives of Korea, to sound the alarm about the country's porous maritime security by lampooning left-wing politicians accused of having pushed for engagement with North Korea at the cost of national security.
Seven young people in North Korean military uniforms ― a woman and six men ― were seen aboard two speed boats in the waters off Busan's Gwangan Beach on July 26 last year. As their boats neared land, they jumped off and waded toward the beach.
Armed with M1 Garand rifles, with one holding a North Korean flag, their faces had camouflage paint. After their arrival on the beach that had scattered beachgoers, a tall man in the group came forward and began to read a statement over a loud speaker. Introducing themselves as seven members selected by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he said he and the others were assigned a special mission to make sure that the state of South Korea's maritime border security is loose enough to infiltrate.
He described President Moon Jae-in as a henchman of Kim, saying Moon faithfully fulfilled his assignment directed by Kim to demoralize the South Korean military, control the media so they report stories only to curry favor with North Korea and implement a series of policy measures aiming to transform the South into a socialist state.
He then handed out leaflets to beachgoers.
Kim Soo-hyun, chairman of Jeondaehyup, said the performance on the beach aimed at mocking President Moon for introducing a set of measures to engage with the North at the expense of South Korea's security.
"We tried to tell the public that South Korea's maritime border with North Korea is porous enough to allow infiltration by North Koreans," Kim said during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the newsroom in Seoul.
According to Kim, the students decided to perform the farce after news reports about four North Koreans aboard a small wooden boat arriving at the eastern port city of Samcheok a month earlier. The North Korean boat freely cruised through South Korean waters for 57 hours without any deterrence from the South Korean military. Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo was grilled at the National Assembly National Defense Committee meeting.
"We thought our sudden presence in North Korean military uniforms would have alarmed the South Korean military and troops would have been sent immediately there to arrest us," Kim said. "But they didn't. It was the police that actually caught us. They arrived there after someone reported to them about what they believed were North Korean spies."
After being questioned by the police, all seven students were released. Currently, there were no laws to hold them accountable because their guns were fake and what they did was a form of protest.
|Seven university students in North Korean military uniforms are seen in the farcical Operation Busan Landing performance on Busan's Gwangan Beach in July last year in this image capture.|
The Gwangan Beach spectacle helped Jeondaehyup members draw public attention as it was covered by many media outlets.
People in their 50s or older were surprised to know that the organizer was Jeondaehyup, because they are aware of another student organization with that name in the 1980s that was radical and accused frequently of pro-North Korea activities.
Launched in 1987, Jeondaehyup had organized many anti-dictatorship protests. The protesters chanted anti-American slogans. Unlike today, student protests in the 1980s were violent, maybe because of the authoritarian regime that relied on the police and military to crack down on anti-government activities.
Students armed with Molotov cocktails and steel pipes took to the streets and clashed with heavily armed police. Some activists relied on an extreme form of protest ― self-immolation ― as a last resort to make their voices heard. Some students were arrested and some were tortured during interrogation.
In 1989, Jeondaehyup stunned the nation for secretly dispatching its member Lim Su-kyung, then a student of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, to Pyongyang for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students as a South Korean student delegate, without permission from the government. During the youth festival, Lim, who later became a lawmaker, reportedly praised North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung. She was arrested as soon as she returned to South Korea after wrapping up the three-day event in Pyongyang and imprisoned for five years for violating the National Security Law.
At that time, there were few inter-Korean student exchanges as students were educated to believe North Korea was their enemy. Accordingly, it was unthinkable that a South Korean student would attend an event in North Korea.
Some of the Jeondaehyup members later took over key government posts. Unification Minister Lee In-young is one of the founding members of the student organization and served as its first chairman. Rep. Woo Sang-ho of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok also led the radical student group. There are several other student protestors-turned-politicians in Cheong Wa Dae, Cabinet ministries and other key government jobs.
They are called the "Generation 586," which stands for people who are in their 50s, went to college in the 1980s and were born in the 1960s. They were called 386 when they were in their 30s and 486 when they were 40-somethings.
The old Jeondaehyup disappeared from history in 1993 when it was replaced with another radical student organization, Hanchongryon.
'Generation 586' vs. millennials
Kim is critical of Generation 586 politicians.
"They are self-centered hypocrites," he said. "If things go badly, they blame others, without making any sincere efforts to check what went wrong with them. This is what the Moon Jae-in government has done since he took power. His aides, mostly Generation 586 politicians, are no different from Moon."
Kim said Generation 586 politicians are the embodiments of "naronambul," an abbreviation of a Korean phrase literally meaning "It's romance if I'm involved; for others, it's an affair." The term refers to selfish use of a double standard to justify one's deeds but turning harsh critic when the same action is done by others.
Kim and many other millennials are critical of Generation 586 politicians because of their "wrong-guided" direction in national security and foreign policy. They claim President Moon's "peace offensive" with North Korea has left the South-North Korean border porous and the liberal government's pro-China policy has taken a heavy toll on the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
|The students launched a rally near Gangnam Station in southern Seoul last year. They mocked President Moon for his China-first policy, claiming his policy priority undermined South Korea-U.S. alliance. / Courtesy of Jeondaehyup|
Kim claimed Generation 586 politicians also are self-deniers. Democracy is endangered because of them, he said.
He cited an incident at Dankook University as a prime example showing freedom of expression is in peril in South Korea after Generation 586 politicians took the helm in key policy areas. Last November, a 25-year-old man was investigated by police after hanging a poster on the wall of a building at Dankook University's Cheonan campus that criticized Moon for currying favor with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In June, a district court in Daejeon ruled the man, identified only by his surname Kim, was guilty of intrusion and fined him 500,000 won. He appealed to a higher court, claiming the ruling violates freedom of expression.
At Kim's trial, an unnamed university official pleaded for clemency, saying the university didn't consider his action an intrusion. But the court sided with the police that claimed hanging posters there is illegal and constitutes intrusion.
"Charging him for putting up posters is a laughable decision," Kim said. "He is the first to be punished for hanging posters at a university. Even President Chun Doo-hwan, who Generation 586 politicians described as a dictator, didn't punish students for hanging posters on campus."
Unlike in the turbulent 1980s, nowadays democracy is settled in South Korea. Millennials were born and raised in a free country, whereas their Generation 586 cohorts grew up when the nation was impoverished and under the rule of President Park Chung-hee, who rose to power through a military coup.
South Korean politics started showing signs of stabilizing in the late 1980s after the June 29 Declaration in 1987 in which the Chun Doo-hwan government backed down in the face of roaring protesters and promised to hold a direct election for the next president.
Political stabilization, meanwhile, has allowed students to turn their attention from politics to issues that are closely related to their wellbeing or their own future.
Some experts claim a generation gap may be the source of their clashes in several issue areas.
Kim Su-wan, a professor of Arabic language at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said the Generation 586 and the younger generation are not comparable and it's almost impossible to find any similarities between the two in terms of their upbringing and the socio-economic environment in which they were raised.
She said the campus life of her students is very different from that of her generation. "In the 1980s, when we attended university, we had pretty strong bonds with other students in the same department. But nowadays, students are individualistic and pragmatic," she said.
Born in 1966, Kim is a Generation 586 professor.
"There has been a shift in professor-student relations, too," she said. "In the 1980s, professors were respected more than they are today. These days, I sometimes feel professors are treated by students as education service providers who pass their expertise on to their students.
"In the past, the two sides were closer and some professors revealed their positions on certain political issues in class one way or another. Back then, it was OK. But these days we professors don't even think about presenting our standpoints on certain political issues in class."
Kim said the prime concern for many university students is about careers after graduation. Unlike in the 1980s, she said, student representatives prioritize on-campus issues, such as tuition fees or professor evaluations, as their agendas to fight for.
An illegitimate heir
Although using the same name, the old and new Jeondaehyup are completely different organizations.
The old one was tightly organized and radical. In the 1980s, violence in protests was, to some degree, justified as a means to make their voices heard.
But the new Jeondaehyup uses non-violent forms of protest. The way they launch protests is fun, creative and witty. President Moon, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are the three most mocked politicians by the millennial protesters.
In the satirical "Moon Jae-in the Great" sequel leaflets produced in 2018, Moon was ridiculed for his policy mishaps. Moon pushed for green energy and the establishment of solar power, while scrapping the nuclear energy policy that had been pursued by previous conservative governments. But his course of action ironically resulted in deforestation and a worsened ecosystem, a leaflet reads.
In another leaflet, the South Korean leader is portrayed as a puppet of Chinese leader Xi.
As revealed in the Lim Su-kyung case, some of the old Jeondaehyup members were linked to North Korea and their left-leaning political orientations made them vulnerable to criticism that they were North Korea sympathizers or Juche ideologists.
The new Jeondaehyup lies in the opposite side in the political spectrum ― they are closer to the right.
Unlike Generation 586 politicians, this generation of Jeondaehyup identifies North Korea as their enemy. The two generations were poles apart in their reactions to the deaths of General Paik Sun-yup and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.
Paik was a Korean War hero. But few Generation 586 politicians paid tribute to the general after his death. They view Paik as a pro-Japanese collaborator for the general's past as a military officer serving in the Manchuria region during Japanese colonial rule of the area.
New Jeondaehyup members, however, treated General Paik as a hero who saved a nation in peril during the Korean War.
They set up a memorial altar for General Paik after he died on July 10, a day after Seoul Mayor Park died in an apparent suicide. The city prepared a five-day funeral for Park, but there was no state funeral set for the Korean War hero.
|The new Jeondaehyup hosted a memorial service for Korean War hero Gen. Paik Sun-yup after his death on July 10. They said they admire General Paik because he's a Korean War hero. / Korea Times file|
Kim said he and other Jeondaehyup members agreed to set up a memorial altar for Paik to allow citizens to pay tribute.
"It was an improvised idea," he said. "One of us put forth an idea to create a public space for the memorial ceremony for Gen. Paik and the rest of us instantly agreed to go for it. We had a couple of tents and brought them to Gwanghwamun to establish a makeshift place to commemorate the Korean War hero."
According to Kim, people from all age groups paid tribute to the late general. Over 100,000 of them wrote their names in the funeral guest book prepared at the altar. Kim said the actual number of visitors was even higher, as most of the people he saw didn't sign.
"Although we are conservative in certain issue areas, such as national security, we don't like to be called right wingers or conservatives," he said. "Calling us conservative is not accurate because we are also open-minded to various values, such as feminism, which are not welcomed by traditional conservatives.
"We respect vegans and other emerging lifestyles, including YOLO (You Only Live Once), too. We characterize ourselves as the free democracy crusaders as we believe in free democracy and it must be a value that South Korea must keep pursuing."
Their apparent differences made the new Jeondaehyup "an illegitimate heir" of the old one.
"We don't like the old Jeondaehyup and its members. I think South Korea has been heading in the wrong direction after the Generation 586 took power," Kim said.
"But we chose to use the same name for our organization when it was launched in 2018 because we like the idea that the organization represents the nation's university students. The Generation 586 politicians were great in the 1980s when they dubbed the student organization as such but they used the good name for bad purposes."
To right the wrongs done of the Generation 586, Kim said he and other new Jeondaehyup members prioritize the awareness campaign for fellow students. They gather regularly to study political, social and economic issues and exchange their ideas to make South Korea great.
To make their voices heard, he said protests need to be fun and enjoyable.
Kim said protest organizers struggle to draw attention from students if their events are not fun.
"For our generation, fun is a critical element in any type of protests to present our opinions and draw attention from the public," he said. "So we try to add some fun or a sense of humor in our leaflets, YouTube videos or other materials."
He said he had a humble wish that could help patch up the generation gap between 586 Generation politicians and the millennials. "I would like to have a drink with former presidential chief of staff Im or Unification Minister Lee as they served as chairmen of the old Jeondaehyup," he said. "As a leader of the same-name student organization, I'd like to listen to their side about the policies they are pushing for."
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