Thank you Korean Schoolgirls!

By George Katsiaficas


On May 2, hundreds of teenage girls suddenly appeared in downtown Seoul—surprising both police and long-time activists. Using text messages and the internet, they organized themselves without any apparent leaders. They demanded an end to new policies implemented by their government allowing US beef to be imported with almost no restrictions.


As if out of thin air, a dazzling surge of protests appeared. For more than two months, daily candlelight vigils have been organized around the country. On June 10, around a million Koreans protested in the country’s streets. Despite continual government threats to censor the internet, raids on offices, confiscation of computers, and arrests and travel bans on “key” individuals, the candlelight vigils go on.


Innocently enough, internet web sites for fans of television personalities were the forums that initially helped create the mobilizations. Once Korean youth acted, they found a populace ready to respond. An anonymous high school student began a petition on Agora (a popular online forum) calling for president Lee Myung-bak's impeachment. Within a week, it gathered 1.3 million signatures.


Protesters coordinate their actions in cyberspace: when rope was needed to pull police buses out of peoples’ way, someone posted a request on the internet using a cell phone. With a few minutes, ropes appeared and the buses were moved. When the police brought in containers filled to capacity as barricades, banners and microphones turned them into stages from which the people of “free” Korea could be protected from their “occupied” counterparts.


Dubbed street protests 2.0, postmodern demonstrations, and cyber activism of H-generation (Hyperspace), they quickly mobilized the entire nation—union members, progressive military veterans, Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists—even one contingent of miniskirts. Dozens of ordinary people who broadcast live coverage of the protests became overnight television celebrities. “Embedded” citizens using camcorders and internet broadcasts are now a more reliable source of information than the established media. When police beat a Seoul National student, video footage caused several officers to be dismissed. A major boycott of conservative dailies (Choson Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, and Dong-A Ilbo) was organized, and even the conservative press began quoting citizen reporters. Via websites, the country’s president got a new nickname: “Two Megabyte” or 2MB (his initials in Korean and modern computers’ slowest processing speed).


The new form of protest organization empowers people directly. Looking at the “candlelight revolution” in Korea, we can observe basic elements of the same form of direct-democracy that emerged in the 1960s: the enacting of an “eros effect” in which small protests set off national crisis; apparently leaderless rallies at which open mikes bring participants from all walks of life; rotation of rallies’ main organizers to encourage the participation of many different groups rather than the stifling control of a central coterie of prominent citizens; and emergence of new sectors (from middle school girls to religious leaders to workers). Marching to their own beat, people’s diversity of tactics and slogans is remarkable. The wide variety of forms of protest reveals inner tensions and differences in the movement. Far from being reflective of weakness, these differences spring from diversity—and hence strength—a vibrant inner dialectic which motivates development and progress.


Already short-term changes have been won: the beef deal has been altered and some top officials forced to resign. 2MB has apologized—twice. Yet longer term issues have now emerged: some Gwangju high school students threatened to go on strike if teachers continue to beat and swear at them; around the country, students question the pressures they face to study around the clock and the consequent denial of adolescent playtime; tens of thousands of auto workers have gone on strike because of U.S. beef imports and job related issues.


While the innovative character of  “internet 2.0 protests” is remarkable, the candlelights demonstrations are more about human will and imagination than new technology. The US has as much—if not more—of the same computer gadgets as South Korea, yet there is no equivalent movement in the US. The Korean Minjung’s continuing existence, the crystallization of decades of struggles and one of the country’s great resources, explains the difference.  To understand the current protests, I think of the weeks of daily candlelight vigils after Ho-sun and Mi-son, two teenage schoolgirls, were killed by a US military vehicle in 2002, of the 183 days of candlelight struggles in Puan that it took to defeat a planned nuclear waste site, and of the tens of thousands of people who used candles to challenge the impeachment of Noh Moo-hyun in 2004.


On the airplane carrying me back to Korea, a stewardess announced 2MB’s electoral victory. Needless to say, during my first months here, my friends were demoralized—some even despondent. Nowadays there is renewed hope and energy. While the government tries to blame protesters for everything including the economic crisis, it is increasingly clear to ordinary people from all walks of life that it’s 2MB, George Bush and their associates who are leading the world to disaster. By incorporating so many progressive activists into his administration, Noh Moo-hyun’s administration dampened street protests, and memberships in progressive NGO’s plummeted. Should we thank Lee Myung-bak for helping revitalize social movements?


With the US financial meltdown, oil price hikes, and unsafe food, neoliberalism’s instabilityits essential need for booms and busts, and its delivery of illness and pain­becomes evident to more of us.  More than anywhere else, neoliberalism’s irrationality is revealed around issues of food. While hundreds of millions of people are starving—the most recent UN number of people who do not have enough to eat is 854 million—about the same number are obese. US and European nations insist upon protecting domestic agribusiness with annual subsidies of billions of dollars—payments which allow rich countries’ corporations to drive poor countries’ farmers out of business. Starvation is thereby increased at the system’s periphery while profits accrue at its center. This is only one dimension of the systematic redistribution of money from the periphery to the center—i.e. from the world’s poor to the rich. Is it any wonder that the UN reports “every five seconds a child dies because she or he is hungry; hunger and poverty claim 25,000 lives every day.”


Such statistics can disable us—unless we are lucky enough to have the energy of youth, like that of Korean schoolgirls, to inspire us. Despite everything the government here says to the contrary, everyone knows the protests began with teenage girls—not the established veterans of decades of street protests whom the government is now arresting and blaming for everything from police violence to neoliberalism's economic savagery in Korea.


The international repercussions of the schoolgirls’ actions are only now being felt. Suddenly, US consumers are questioning the safety of their own food.  For decades, Americans have swallowed every political lie told them with the gullibility of cows being led to slaughter, and they have eaten whatever food corporate agribusiness has provided. Last year, killer spinach appeared on supermarket shelves; this year, killer tomatoes made their way onto dining room tables. The problem is much deeper than a few errant tomatoes: corporate agribusiness systematically delivers unhealthy foods. Every year in the US, cancers, obesity, heart disease and diabetes grow as people consume more sugars and chemicals in processed foods. “Scientific data” may reveal only a handful of Mad Cow cases, but Parkinson’s disease and dementia are at epidemic levels and growing worse. In its quest for “scientific data,” the Bush administration routinely denies the right to conduct tests for Mad Cow even to US farmers who request it.


The change we need is systematic. We need structures in which the simple needs of ordinary people, not the profit needs of giant corporations, are centrally important to science, to politics, and especially to economics. We need fresh foods, ones that are locally grown (thereby not only saving energy but also providing nutritious food). We need local, grassroots democracy and cooperation—exactly like the kinds practiced during the Gwangju Uprising when the city was self-governing from May 22 through the 26th.


The current system offers us corporate delivery of unhealthy food and systematic starvation; it delivers petty minded dictators like 2MB and W to the highest levels of power. Presidents Lee Myung-bak and George Bush are fine illustrations of the systematic promotion of dumbed-down men to high positions of leadership. In the US the entire country’s educational system and media have been dumbed down since the 1960s. A middle school Korean girl patiently explained to me that 2MB was born in Japan and has a Japanese name—facts of which I was previously unaware. Thank goodness Koreans are still studying and produce fine teenagers capable of stirring the nation’s conscience and educating us all.


While many commentators have already announced the decline of Hallyu (Korean culture’s impact in Asia through its movies, music and television series), decades of social movements constructed the political freedoms and cultural confidence without which no Korean Wave would have been possible. From 4.19 to 5.18, from the Great June Uprising and Big Workers Struggle to the conviction and imprisonment of Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, the self-formation of the Korean Minjung is one of the greatest accomplishments of the last half of the 20th century—even surpassing the spectacular growth in Korea’s economy. Powerfully creative cultural forces and grassroots political willpower now exist, and they have yet to run their course.


I discern at least three major waves in the surge of Korea’s energy breaking upon distant shores: the inspiration for democratic uprisings provided by 518 and the 1987 uprising; Hallyu’s enormous cultural impact; and recent candlelight protests against US beef, which along with Korean farmers’ prominence at international protests in Cancun and Hong Kong, position Koreans to provide global leadership in the struggle against neoliberalism.


The hundreds of middle and high school girls who led the first protests in Seoul on May 2 embody the continuing importance of Minjung politics. By rising to demand healthy food and sensible policies from their government, they have stirred the entire nation. For their vision and actions, they deserve more than simply a verbal thank-you. If it were in my power, I would build a memorial to them so that future generations will continue to be inspired and learn from their example.


“The people make history,” often an empty rhetorical device in the mouths of politicians, helps highlight the meaning of the middle school protests. Since the 1960s, social movements continually provide astonishing evidence of the capacity of ordinary people to create participatory forms of popular power that energize and enlighten us. In May 1968 in France, the entire country convulsed in near-revolution as organs of dual power sprang up everywhere from the grassroots. Two years later in the U.S., four million students and half-a-million faculty declared a nationwide strike in May 1970 against war and police violence. The cultural shift produced by these movements meant far more freedom for hundreds of millions of people.


How far the current wave of protests will carry us is still anyone’s guess. At least one thing is certain: once again, ordinary people’s intelligence far surpasses that of existing elites. In this case, teenage schoolgirls make president 2MB look terribly out of touch. Whether or not we let our fate be determined by a small coterie of corporate executives and their politician friends is a choice once again before us. Thank you, Korean middle school girls, for reminding us of that simple truth.