A Skeptic’s View of the Korean Student Movement

Chonnam University, 1980

Student protest has a long tradition in Korea, in keeping with the Confucian idea of students as the conscience of society. In 1960 the student movement was a major factor in the overthrow of Pres. Syngman Rhee. After 1960, the student movement moved considerably to the left of its earlier liberal-democratic position. With much righteous indignation, the students claimed that the system was corrupt beyond reform, and they pointed to the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee and Park’s Yushin Constitution, in which he proclaimed himself “president for life,” the slaughter of hundreds of citizens in the 1980 Kwangju Uprising and the illegitimacy of Chun Doo-hwan’s seizure of power. There was no truly viable opposition inside the government.

The United States was suspected of having condoned the massacre at Kwangju and of having supported the illegitimate and corrupt regime of Chung Doo-hwan. Western neo-Marxist literature seeped into the country and into the minds of the students. The students came to see the government as the puppet of the “neo-colonialist” United States. In 1986 and 1987, as labor unrest and opposition to Chun Doo-hwan was growing, the student movement gained a great deal of popular support. White-collar company employees joined in the demonstration, and church people and housewives cheered from the sidelines. Eventually Chun was forced to step down.

The Korean student movement existed in an environment without democratic traditions and almost entirely without a history of successful reform movements. Korea had no tradition of democracy, no understanding of a loyal opposition or polite though heated debate, no notion of officials being held accountable by the public, no experience of the grassroots’ participating by voicing demands which could eventually become public policy. Student leaders believed themselves to be more “moral” than the rulers of the country. They hoped that throwing the bums out and breaking the shackles of American oppression would lead to democratic reform and reunification with North Korea.

The Kwangju Massacre began when the Special Forces, which had fought with the U.S. in Vietnam, attacked a peaceful student demonstration at Chonnam University with bayonets, clubs and gunfire. Students and townspeople responded, and the demonstrations grew. The troops were called off only to return with true military might and the support of the U.S. military command. After Kwangju, two events exceptional for their violence were the 1986 siege of Kongguk University in Seoul, when special troops with helicopters and tanks held a student rally captive inside the university for several days, and the death of six policemen who were held captive inside a burning building at Dongeui University. In 1991 a student was beaten to death by the police. Also that spring there was a series of protest suicides by young undergraduates who set themselves on fire. It was clear that the self-immolations led to a decline in public support for the student movement. People felt things were just going too far. 

In late 1991 I asked a philosophy student at Seoul National University to give me his view of the student movement. Mark came to Korea as a soldier in the U.S. Army, developed an interest in Korea, became a Buddhist monk and then left his order. He entered the university in 1988 and completed all his requirements for a degree in November, 1991. At that time Mark was a very laid-back, likeable fellow in his late twenties whose Korean proficiency was near-native. He expressed disappointment with the student movement, a disappointment which had led him to reconsider liberation movements in general. The skepticism he had found in Korea became part of his overall view of the human condition and the prospects for change. Here are his words.

Mark’s story

I’ve been observing the student movement for the last four years—never from the inside, but I’ve had friends who were involved. I’ve also been reading position papers for four years. At Seoul National there’s an open area with position papers taped up on the sides of the buildings. The papers I’ve seen have always been vehemently anti-U.S., even to the point of being ridiculous. They’d sound pretty funny in English. For example, after the U.S. bombed Libya, some student organizations claimed that Incheon was going to be next. For the life of me, I still can’t figure that one out. [According to Western news reports, massive labor unrest was erupting in Incheon, a city outside Seoul, at that time. The students might have felt that the “colonial” power had a vested interest in putting an end to it—or that it made a good story.]

It’s really difficult for a Westerner to understand the motivations behind all this because of the difference in the way Korean history is interpreted. Korean students tend to see their own country as always having been the victim and the U.S. as always being extremely imperialist and only looking out for its own interests.

The Marxist view of society is very much embedded in the way people think here. For example, the professors lecture a lot about social class, class conflict and the progression of history. The term minjung crops up all the time, meaning “the people,” particularly the workers, who make up a kind of sacred group. Until recently there was a big black market in communist books put out by small underground presses which also ran off leaflets to be handed out at the universities. Now you can go into any of the bookstores around the universities and find them chocked full of communist literature. I don’t know whether this is still the case, but there used to be a lot of Marxist study groups. The typical attitude was not what you’d expect for a person in a field of study like physics, but the attitude of Christians studying the Bible—either people believe it or they don’t. For believers it’s a matter of figuring out exactly what Marx said in order to follow it, not a matter of determining whether some particular point is right or applicable. Since the students have very little experience with anything other than studying, their talk tends to be very heady and intellectual and extremely unrealistic. I’ve never heard of any students trying to apply Marxist principles on a smaller level, for example, living together and trying to combine labor and finances or buying a farm and getting a commune together—the sort of thing that was done all over the West in the sixties and seventies.

The students use the term “democracy” a lot, but nobody ever really advocates democracy. Nobody speaks about trying to get basic information on current affairs out to the general public or taking steps to assure that the election will be fair. There is a deep cynicism among the students about whether their goals can be achieved democratically. Most of the students won’t even get behind the left-wing politicians. Their efforts are directed entirely at overthrowing the government so the whole system can be changed from the top down.

My impression is that the student movement has a top-down structure, very totalitarian, with no democracy, and that the leaders, the people who do most of the planning, try to fan up as much anger as they can on as many issues as possible. I think they’ll lie and invent things and do anything they can to get the students riled up. Once in a while an issue will appear—a student gets killed or something—and they succeed. The more moderate students will look at the issue and decide they have to do something about it. So they take to the streets in protest.

I think stories are invented because I often read in their position papers about U.S. intentions and secret agreements with this country or that country. There’s never a source cited. I know this thing didn’t come out in the mainstream American papers or magazines. When they say the Americans met with so-and-so and were secretly plotting with them to do this or that, where could this information possibly have come from? I doubt that Korean students have access to foreign news sources that I don’t have, given the fact that the government controls its citizens’ access to information.

There are other things that are obviously not true. One of the student reporters went around to places outside the U.S. bases interviewing prostitutes. He finished his article by staying that all the women he had interviewed said, “We can’t wait until Korea gets reunited so we won’t have to work here anymore.” This was obviously something just off the top of the reporter’s head. Many Korean men are furious that Korean prostitutes are sleeping with Americans, but I know from my own experience that getting rid of their American customers is the last thing on the minds of the women who work there.

A lot of foreigners arrive here with a very liberal outlook and a lot of sympathy for the movement, but I’ve never met a Westerner who actually lived here who has been able to maintain any sympathy for the people who run the student movement—maybe with their objectives, but not with the student leaders. Certainly there’s a lot to be angry about regarding America’s role in their history. I sympathize with their objectives myself.

Korean Americans go to the rallies despite the risk of getting thrown out of the country. The ones I’ve talked with were very disappointed because they thought people were insincere. Maybe the speaker was talking and a lot of the audience was just clowning around instead of listening.

And the movement is extremely racist. People use the terms Miguk-nom [American bastard] and Ilbon-nom [Japanese bastard]. Nom is not used for any nationality except Japanese and American. This attitude must affect the Japanese students here too, because a lot of them come here eager to learn all about Korea and then leave after a year or two very disillusioned. I imagine it’s because there’s so much resentment against the Japanese.

I’ve heard that, during the sixties in the U.S. and Europe, the student movement intimidated professors and others it thought were unsympathetic to the cause. In Korea this has been going on for a long time. The student movement uses intimidation just like any other totalitarian system does. Once I was sitting in a classroom trying to listen to a lecture and not being able to hear a word because almost directly outside, in a little room off the hall, a student was banging on a drum—practicing for something. I didn’t understand a word of the lecture in the entire hour and a half, and I don’t think anyone else did either. It would have been unthinkable for the professor to go out and say, “Please stop banging on that drum.” I’ve seen a few of the older professors go out to a demonstration and say, “Please be quiet, we’re having class in here.” The students razzed them and made them look like idiots. Students used to protest political developments by boycotting tests. Marshals stood outside the classroom doors and didn’t allow anyone to go in. A student couldn’t just say, “Well, I’m going to take the test, you guys do what you want.”

The movement has a strict hierarchy. At the bottom are student groups called “circles,” or clubs. With a few exceptions, like the Buddhist club and the yoga club, they have either a Christian or a communist orientation and are opposed to the government. They use their resources to support the movement. The photo club has exhibitions in which all of the photos show workers and factories and maybe demonstrations. A student trying to show pictures of flowers would be ridiculed.

Someone has to do all the hand-lettering and drawing on the posters, which are up all over the place. On any given day, they tape up probably a hundred and fifty freshly-written pages on big paper. It’s a tremendous amount of work. Someone has to organize the ideology and make sure that it’s consistent. There may be minor differences between schools, but you never see two papers side by side presenting different views.

Each academic department has a student council, each college within the university has a student council, and there is also a general student council for the university, which has a loose affiliation with organizations connecting the various universities. So the philosophy department student council might have a demonstration outside, with twenty or thirty people turning up in bandannas and maybe matching shirts, and that demonstration will be followed by one from another department. After classes you often get a little speech followed by an announcement of a shindig somewhere, which everyone is expected to attend. At the beginning of the year there’s something called “MT,” or “membership training,” which is a three-day drunk and indoctrination session. This is especially important for the freshmen, who are just learning the ropes.

Before a big demonstration, the departments will each chant and march and dance around the campus, and then there will be a big rally in the plaza, with each department seated in its own section. They may have people coming in from outside to talk, people in business suits who may be alumni or aspiring politicians. All of the speakers must sound extremely angry. There’s a lot of chanting and screaming. Then the male students tear off some lengths of pipe from the fence, and the female students crush rock in the road and collect the rocks on garbage can lids and carry them down to the gate. People will bring out the boxes of Molotov cocktails they have been preparing all day. There’s more chanting and fist-waving at the gate. The chants come from books of songs and chants which students are required to learn and practice. They may be fairly simple, like “Bring down the Roh regime” or “Americans go home.”

There’s a great deal of machismo in the whole thing. When the students go out to battle the riot police, they get all their stuff together and then put themselves in as much danger as they can get away with. It’s a primitive fighting ritual in which initiation and other rites of passage are very important. The students laugh and show off their weapons and try to get in the front line—maybe steal a policeman’s helmet or something and bring it back. I think the police were also into a macho thing, and the tough guys have a contest going about who can be the toughest. Last spring a student was beaten to death by the riot police during a demonstration.

The reason why a lot of people support the student movement, whether they like the leadership or not, is because it applies a constant pressure on the government. The government always has to keep one eye on the student movement. You may notice that the government passes its strong measures when school’s out of session, especially right at the beginning of vacation when the students are out in the countryside. [Winter vacation is from about the second week in December to the end of February, and summer vacation is from about the middle of June to the third week in August.] Then as soon as school starts and the students are just getting organized, the government will try to dampen their ire with a conciliatory gesture like releasing some political prisoners. Sometimes the government messes it up, and the protest can’t be contained. It accelerates, goes out of control, and someone is pushed out of power. There was a big demonstration in Masan when the police opened fire on the students. Then there was an uprising everywhere. You used to see tanks and military actually on the campus.

From time to time there have been suggestions that students should use nonviolence, but I don’t think that appeals to very many students. At one time I got very interested in Gandhi and studied a lot of his books. From him I got the idea that nonviolence takes a lot of discipline and careful focus on very clear issues. Gandhi’s position wasn’t to insist that the British were ipso facto bad, but merely to point out the inconsistencies and to target the very clear faults in the system. For instance, there was a law that prohibited Indians from making their own salt. Obviously the thing to do was to walk down to the beach and make a little bag of salt for your own use from saltwater—in order to show that something was really wrong if a person couldn’t do such a simple thing. To make an issue that clear requires a lot of clear thinking. The students don’t do that. My impression is that if the government happened to take some action the students had once agreed with, the students would change their position in order to be on the opposite side.

There’s very little focus on small things. I remember once the students came out and danced around and did their thing on the second floor of the student building. They wrote up all their signs and then just threw everything on the floor. It was a huge place, and it was such a mess you could hardly walk through it. There were chairs knocked over and paint spilled all over. The campaign was for a protest movement to unite with the workers, a student-worker union. When they went outside, I watched them dance around the plaza as an old custodian came in and started cleaning up their mess. I’m sure it never occurred to the students that the custodian was a worker too.

Small things are difficult. Another example comes from a Marxism class I took last semester. The class was offered by a professor of social philosophy who was very interested in Marxism and had studied it in the United States and Germany. This was a special class offered in response to requests from students in the movement. It was a three-hour course, but it met only for two hours in the professor’s office. There were no tests and no reports. You just had to read the book and translate from German when it was your turn. But despite the fact that it was very easy, most of the students who were into demonstrating often didn’t show up for class. When they did come, they’d have some excuse about having had to do something for the movement—somebody was trying to get elected, or they had to go over to another university for something. The teacher made cracks about having to give them an F, but at the end he just said, “Well, turn in a report.” I was amazed that the students would behave that way. They were just being lazy.

Actually, watching this sort of thing has made me much more cynical about mass movements in other countries as well. It sounds good that people are out to save the poor, but maybe that’s not all that’s happening. My cynicism comes from observing that very few people really want to do anything to change life—their own life, their family and their community. The small things take a lot of work. The students talk a lot about trying to clean up the government, but people give bribes to officials when they need government paperwork done. They even bribe their sons’ elementary school teachers. The corruption that people are criticizing is deeply embedded into the whole society. So why not try to change things closer to home? Because that kind of change has a tremendous cost. If you don’t bribe your kid’s teacher, he won’t get special treatment. That’s why people do it.

It’s certainly true, as Krishnamurti [an Indian spiritual leader] said, that wars are not just fought on the battlefield, they’re also fought with your secretary in the morning. What happens on a big level also happens on a small, individual level in people’s lives. Myself, I’m very skeptical that any change that happens only in the social structure will have any lasting effect. I think society changes when people change, when consciousness changes. Historians talk about this king and that war. It’s hard to trace changes in individual lives over a period of time. People do do good things, they do have compassion. Most people aren’t violent. I think this is what we need to focus on. Why does a mother look out for her child instead of doing what she wants to do? I think there’s a reason for that. If we start with the mother’s compassion for her child and learn to develop that in ourselves, use that as a starting point, I think there is some hope.

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