Community Through Solidarity: A Reflection

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When I first arrived at the ISC’s office in August of 2014, I had little idea what the organization was about or what I would be doing as its intern. All I knew was that I was looking for a change after spending a year teaching English in Korea and that the ISC, as an organization dedicated to international left solidarity in Korea, was my best chance to find the political clarification and community I was looking for. In the past year, I have seen and experienced more than I ever could have imagined; I attended the 1,000th protest by the organization of families for political prisoners; I listened to speakers from the US, the EU, Japan, and Korea gather to discuss the future of “local food” internationally and in Korea; and I witnessed the one-year anniversary of the Sewol tragedy come and go, as well as society’s frustration that so little has changed one year later and the hope and conviction of the victims’ families keeping the struggle alive. I’ve also had the opportunity to get involved in projects I never would’ve dreamed of. I interviewed the vice president of the Korean Women Peasants Association about the devastating impact the Korea-China FTA will have on Korean farmers; I assisted with an international call to action in support of the Sewol families in their quest for truth from the Korean government; and I helped plan the Open Lecture series, which introduces Korea’s foreign audience to important Korean issues of the day, just as I once was introduced to them through the ISC.

Most importantly, however, I’ve been introduced to a community, as well as to the transformative power of people connected by a common political vision. Living in Korea and getting involved with the Korean social movement has transformed how I understand basic tenants of social justice. Previously, my experiences with activism were based on American college-campus activism, where we used words such as “community, “”accountability,” and “self-care,” but had little idea how to practice them. My year here has not only given me a view into what that can look like in the real world, but also shown me a powerful alternative even to conventional American forms of community-building. While in America people tend to ‘take a step back’ when hard times hit, in Korea the tendency is to instead look for ways to ‘step forward together.’ One of the best examples of this is “Let’s Play Together,” an alternative preschool founded by some of the Korean activists I have met. When several community members had children at about the same time, they took stock of the situation and instead of retreating into their nuclear families, they decided to found an alternative preschool together. Now, they drop their kids off every morning, knowing that their kids are receiving personal attention from two dedicated teachers (who also belong to the political community), that they are fed organic food, and that they spend time playing, forming relationships, and learning how to play and work together, instead of being forced to study; then, they pick them up every night, with each parent responsible for tidying up once a week.

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This story symbolizes so much of the small but powerful ways in which the Korean social movement envisions and creates community. Even on a personal level, this framework has left a powerful impression; the ISC is the first organization that has ever taken responsibility for my well-being politically, socially, and physically. Meeting and spending time with the activists within the ISC’s network, I began to see the tangible power of community: immediately obvious in large gestures, such as the night we marched on Gwanghwamun to protest the one-year anniversary of Sewol and I saw dozens of people I had met before marching alongside me; and also in much smaller ways, like the communal lunch held every day at the office, where everyone eats together and takes turns preparing food and cleaning up.

Acting as part of such a tight-knit community is not without its struggles; whether as an American, or as someone who has just begun her political journey, I have struggled with the all-encompassing entity of community here; of moving as a group, not an individual, from decision-making processes, to conveying information, to making plans and organizing. I also found that it asks a lot more of people, in terms of their time and effort; while many of the people I’ve met inspire me with their optimism and kindness, I know they lead difficult lives full of social, political, and economic pressures, and that they do this work often without compensation simply because they believe so deeply in it.

The word “community” is used frequently in political circles, in increasingly abstract terms; ultimately, however, a community lives and dies by its members, and their commitment to shared purpose. While this kind of community requires a lot from the individual, it also holds power and potential one person could never achieve on their own. As I attended celebratory events held by various organizations throughout the year, seeing those I knew give speeches or dance in skits, and concluding the night with a bout of eating and drinking together, I often felt like part of a (freakishly large, but incredibly loving) family.

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Community also helps when you feel most hopeless or alone in the struggle; something I’ll never forget was seeing the Sewol parents, after having marched from Ansan to Gwanghwamun, stand in two rows to receive the embraces and words of encouragement from hundreds of supporters, all of whom were gathered to show them that they shared in their sorrow, anger, and commitment to a better future without such tragedy.

Perhaps most importantly, community is what gives you the courage or fortitude to continue the struggle when you might otherwise give up. One year ago, I listened as Kwon Nak-gi, a long-term political prisoner, told us how he was able to withstand 18 years of imprisonment; by looking at the faces of his fellow conscientious objectors across from him, and knowing he couldn’t betray those that were counting on him. My own moment of truth came one year later while attending a protest hosted by the Sewol families. After we had attempted to march to the Blue House and been cut off by police near the mouth of Insadong, I felt true fear for the first time while attending a protest, as hundreds of policemen approached in full riot gear. As they surrounded us, the only thing that kept me there was watching those I respect and admire stand fast. The police quickly began spraying tear-gas-water, and I understood for the first time that truly putting yourself on the front line of justice means that your safety isn’t guaranteed. Yet, watching people stand their ground even while being drenched in a skin- and eye-burning deluge, made me that much more angry about the injustice of the situation and determined to resist it. And I could see the sentiment spreading - despite multiple attempts to disperse the crowds, each time the protesters came back stronger than before.

A major lesson that the ISC has sought to teach me this year, and which I have come to see through my time with them, is that we cannot achieve anything without having a political community, and discussing, acting, and struggling (in service of common goals as well as to better understand one another) – together. It is the crucial impetus for social change – after all, how else can we begin to combat the greed and selfishness of 21st-century capital and neoliberalism without learning to reconnect with one another, to remember our history of mutual dependency as well as to understand the grim future of our current path without reprioritizing social ties over financial ties? If it is the severing of real human connections that has been the biggest effect of capitalism, and if the world desires progress towards its professed ideals of equality and peace, then the future must involve the rebuilding of meaningful and ideologically-based relationships.

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This also means that the future of the left must be based in international solidarity. While I have long felt that true social change will not occur until policies address the needs of those most oppressed and disenfranchised, my time in Korea has given me a vital perspective on what international solidarity means, particularly as an American. This year has been a year of terrible tragedies in the US, from the senseless deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, to the nine victims of the recent South Carolina church shooting; it has been a vivid reminder that racism still thrives in the US, while also kindling hope for change in my own generation as people take to the streets and organize. Yet, it is not enough to simply decry racism without addressing the economic impetus that incentivizes the oppression or enslavement of others; it is not enough even to challenge domestic economic inequality, without also questioning how developed countries exploit, oppress, and even brutalize ‘underdeveloped' countries, especially those that dare to defy American neoliberalism. While social issues in the US are important, I realize how much of a privilege it is to only think about the US’ internal issues, without also accepting my responsibility as a US citizen to engage in US state-sponsored mechanisms of global control, such as Free Trade Agreements, the TPP,and THAAD. The luxury of ignorance is not an option for the people of other countries who must live with the consequences of America’s actions: international solidarity thus means not only forging relationships with international actors, but constantly pushing my own political understanding past my own lens as an American.

As I leave Korea in the coming month, I carry new questions alongside my newfound answers: how will I navigate the differences between American and Korean styles of organizing? Where is my specific place in the international solidarity movement? And what does it mean to stay a part of a community even when you are physically removed? As I return to the US, I plan to re-enter into the politics of my own country - yet I also plan to remain connected to the work of the ISC, to the people I have met here, and above all to their - our – shared vision.

written by Stephanie Park (intern)