Recently we have all been inundated with Kony this and Uganda that, at each others’ throats and judging up the wazoo. But one thing can’t be denied….we now know who Kony is. Whether you’re pro ‘Cover the Night’ or anti meddling, the dialogue is open and that’s what fuels progress. However what it has got me asking is, what about Korea? Could such a social movement ever be possible in today’s society? Does anyone want to cover something about anything anymore?
Let’s back it up a bit and take glimpse at Korea’s protesting past. It’s safe to say that Korea is not only no stranger to protesting, but historical protests are also a matter of national pride. The March 1st Movement of 1919 was the beginning of the first large scale uprisings against the Japanese occupation. Approximately 2,000,000 Koreans took part in over 1,500 protests spanning over the course of a month. Passionate and bloody, the day is still remembered with pride and honored with a public holiday.
Fast forward to 1960 where a corrupt dictatorship under Syngman Rhee has pushed its people to breaking point. Students begin to raise angry voices and march in the April 19 protests, only to be ruthlessly fired upon by police killing over 100 people. Sacrifices paid off however, and Rhee forcibly resigned from power on April 26.
For more on April 19, 1960 read Gusts of Popular Feeling’s post here.
One of the most brutal and pivotal protests was the Gwangju Uprising of May 18, 1980. Another movement against another dictator, Chun Doo Hwan, this bloody clash of civilians against government lasted through until May 27, when it was again ruthlessly crushed by the military. Pictures documenting this movement are not for the faint of heart, and although they were defeated, the uprising was instrumental in shaping Korea’s budding democracy.
But that was then, and this is now. Korean society is modernized, industrialized, and has not only caught up to the developed world, but is also fast becoming one of its leaders. Citizens no longer need to fight power hungry dictators for basic human rights, nor fear for their safety from an iron fisted military. But that doesn’t stop people taking to the streets with fire in their bellies….albeit at a certain hour, at a certain place and with certain approval. Korea’s society has evolved, but its method of protesting has not.
It’s the 21st century and Korean protesters are getting desperate. Angry and shouty protests are a dime a dozen, and they are so commonplace that nobody really pays attention anymore. They have lost their shock value, and passers by barely give a glance to their cause. And so we enter an age of the extreme, where activists and protesters will do anything and everything, and are even willing to cause bodily harm just to get noticed.
For a history of Korean protests this is also a good read.
Of course nobody could forget the 2004 American FTA protest season. It caught international media attention when more than 10,000 people collectively tore up an American flag and were dispersed with water cannons. But in recent years much more frightening protests have shocked and disturbed. Examples include, but are not limited to, a man covering himself in bees to protest Dokdo, men publicly cutting off their fingers in protest of the Yasukuni shrine, a live pig being ripped apart in Incheon (with conflicting reports of motives), and a mass demonstration of masked prostitutes against government legislation. For a good look at some of these, and more, with some eyebrow raising photos check here.
Flag burning is illegal in Korea….therefore next best option is to eat it.
So what about Kony? In a country that relies on social media more than face to face interaction in almost every industry, where is Korea’s Kony? It’s on twitter. And only on twitter. The ‘twittersphere’ is an entire sub-society where people don’t even need to know what each other look like, and participating in a cause is at the click of a button. The Korean youth are vocal about their dissatisfaction with the government, society, and life in general, but it is limited to a cyworld post, a facebook status or a retweet. There is a distinct disconnect between knowing about a problem and actually doing something to change it.
Take Kim Yeo Jin for example, a famous actress who has been dubbed a ‘social-tainer’ and the ‘Goddess of the Twittersphere’. Her activism against politicians and policies has attracted a lot of attention, and from people in power much of it negative, but it’s mostly on the internet. Whilst she predominantly conducts a ‘twitter campaign’ for her causes, she did get out and join protesters and was subsequently arrested. The blow by blow of which was live-tweeted for her army of internet activists. You can read her story here, and be sure to count how many times twitter is mentioned.
But twitter is only effective up to a point. There still lacks a happy medium between violent angry protest and passive netizen malcontent. A Korean labor media activist put it best when she said “We separate action and daily life…go to a rally, then home. We have to integrate struggle into our daily lives.” (Source) Today’s Korean youth are either too preoccupied with their own problems to commit to action, too disillusioned about whether or not it will have any effect, or else too tired from working 90 hour weeks.
However there is hope. A small artist driven organization known as One-Man-Demonstration.com (which incidentally is not an actual web address) provides a service for those with a cause, but don’t want to do the protesting themselves. One person is not a group protest, so no need for government permission, the performer creates a visual protest in a public place. For example, an Occupy Wall Street sympathy protest entailed one man outside the US Embassy with an American dollar bill with a hole where the president’s face should be. Not exactly occupying anything, and not exactly stopping the presses, but it’s something different.
Will large numbers of Koreans be papering the city with posters on April 20th? My conclusion…..probably not. But I eagerly await to be proven wrong.